Controversy surrounded the Yale Political Union’s first debate of the year Tuesday night as Former Attorney General John Ashcroft ’64 defended his conception of liberty.
Ashcroft’s speech highlighted the difference between liberty and democracy in government. Liberty is an outcome of good government, he said, while democracy is a process of government. He criticized the United States for lending support to supposedly “democratically elected” regimes that restricted the liberties of its peoples, he said. Meanwhile, a dozen protesters from New Haven, Yale and the ANSWER Coalition — a civil justice group — marched outside Sheffield-Strathcoma-Sterling Hall to protest Yale’s invitation of Ashcroft, alleging that he had committed war crimes.
Ashcroft served as attorney general under former President George W. Bush ’68 and supported the Patriot Act, legislation that led to the torture of alleged terrorists during the Iraq War. In his speech, Ashcroft, without mentioning U.S. interrogation techniques during the Iraq War or the Patriot Act, also claimed that there exist security measures that can actually increase individual liberties.
“The purpose of security is not to counterbalance liberty; it is to enhance liberty,” Ashcroft said.
He finished the speech by praising immigrants who come to America in search of greater freedom, not in search of government benefits.
As Ashcroft outlined the difference between liberty and democracy during his speech for the YPU, several protesters rose and shouted their condemnations at Ashcroft. In seconds, four Yale Police officers removed them by force from the hall.
Outside, protesters contested Ashcroft’s collaboration in the anti-terrorism regime that brought about the creation of Guantanamo Bay and war zones in the Middle East.
“John Ashcroft is a war criminal,” protester Norman Clement said to the crowd. “Why should he, after sanctioning the torture of human beings, be paid to speak about human liberties? Shame on Yale.” The protesters chanted “put Ashcroft in jail” and carried signs bearing the same message.
“John Ashcroft is guilty of war crimes,” protester Chris Garaffa said. “There was no debate when people were detained in Guantanamo Bay. There was no debate for the children who were bombed in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
Members of the YPU, especially, welcomed the protests. Isaac Cohen ’16, a member of the Conservative Party, said he supported the conversation around Ashcroft’s invitation. Cohen added that, even though Ashcroft was not talking about torture, he believes torture is an important issue to debate. Even those who support torture in certain situations should not be shouted down, Cohen said; rather, they should be met with reasoned counterargument.
Other students said that while Ashcroft’s invitation is contentious, it is important for Yale to recognize all aspects of the country’s political history. Party of the Right Secretary-Treasurer Madison Masters ’17 said that although political figures like John C. Calhoun, Christopher Columbus and John Ashcroft have committed wrongful acts, this does not preclude them from being included in campus discussion.
Even Ashcroft himself supported the dissenting opinions caused by his invitation to speak on campus.
“I have appreciated every hiss just as much as I’ve appreciated the applause,” he said.“I even appreciate the guy who was carried out the back door.”