Bush AG John Ashcroft visits Beloit amid protests
Moore Lounge was packed on Wednesday, Nov. 7 for John Ashcroft’s visit to Beloit College. Several students were forced to sit on the ground or stand against the wall throughout the event. This was despite protests from various students on campus, notably the organization Students for an Inclusive Campus (SIC).
This is not the first time the Young Americans for Freedom brought a contentious speaker to campus. Last semester YAF brought political philosopher Dr. Harvey C. Mansfield to campus, a decision that was met with similar controversy considering his views regarding gender and sexuality. During that event Mansfield was booed by several audience members and was heckled throughout his talk. One student was asked to leave after they yelled, “Who the fuck is paying you to be here?”
Arguably, significantly more anger was visible in the days leading up to Ashcroft’s talk. An op-ed was published in The Round Table, SIC sent a letter condemning Ashcroft’s invitation to campus to President Scott Bierman, Interim Dean of Students Cecil Youngblood, Director of Student Engagement and Leadership Jen Walsh, members of the Funding Board, and the Young Americans for Freedom student group, and a petition was spread throughout campus asking others who felt similarly against the event to sign.
Nonetheless, there were no loud outbursts or heckles throughout Ashcroft’s speech.
Ashcroft’s talk focused on the “core value America:” liberty and how security is tied to it. He suggested that it would be incorrect to “characterize them as parallel values” as opposed to interwoven ones. Security is not a value, Ashcroft explained, but instead a way to respect values and in that sense, it is vital to secure liberty.
Ashcroft wished to make it clear, nevertheless, that he was not trying to suggest that liberty is to be sacrificed at the cost of security. Instead, he agreed that people might see security as a way to impair liberty but that he hoped people would start seeing security as an “enhancer” of liberty. “There are those who say that anytime you have a law you inhibit liberty. I don’t think so. I think a test of our laws should always be, does it enhance our liberty or not? I wouldn’t even mind having a liberty impact statement when we’re considering whether to pass a law,” he added.
“Liberty has to yield for the necessity of security,” Ashcroft argued, alluding to moment like 9/11 where liberty would have been “impaired in a significant way” otherwise.
In terms of foreign security, Ashcroft suggested that liberty also had to be maintained as a core value. “How do you view liberty? Is it a core of what you believe in or not?” he stated were the questions to be asked of any new regime. Without liberty as a significant value, Ashcroft does not believe the United States should grant recognition or funding because liberty is what allows humanity to reach “its maximum potential.”
Ashcroft also briefly touched on the pervasive sentiment of American superiority stating that “it is wrong for us to believe that as Americans we’re better than other people” because “how can we be better than other folks? We are other folks. We just have the privilege of being involved in a setting framed by liberty and opportunity.” This, however, morphed into Ashcroft’s thoughts on the immigrants that he said should be welcomed in the United States.
It is people who come for liberty’s sake that should be readily received, he argued. “What we have here will determine who we attract,” he explained. “For instance, if we develop a benefit society so that people come here just for benefits, we’ll attract a different kind of people than if you have a freedom society.” To further simplify this point, Ashcroft explained: “people who come for free-dom–they’re going to be real good for us. People who come for free-stuff, I’m not so sure about them.” Ashcroft also added that a good example of this was “one of his favorite immigrants,” Andrew Carnegie.
Benefit cultures, then, are categorized by bureaucracy, he said, while liberty cultures are categorized by opportunity, the kind of outcome the United States should be striving for.
Ashcroft also briefly touched on the critiques of the Patriot Act and similarly contentious laws and actions from the government by arguing that these moves are a necessity because of how they help in protecting this “core value.” Another key policy he mentioned was the handling of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) system, a system that the U.S Department of Justice has now opened an investigation on for potential abuses of the system by law enforcement. Ashcroft agreed that there is a “crisis” where surveillance has been weaponized for politics and suggested new systems be put in place to build public trust and confidence in the system. “When we seek to defend liberty […] we have to understand that security is not a way to derogate it or to compromise; it’s a way to enhance it, to reinforce it, and respect it.”
While there were no interruptions during Ashcroft’s speech, students did not hesitate to ask tough questions that questioned Ashcroft’s implementation of the Patriot Act, Bush’s administration’s involvement in the Middle East, and how liberty has been impacted by the United States’ incarceration rate and criminal system that significantly impact and target people of color.
One student was cut off after a brief back and forth with Ashcroft, and before he was able to question Ashcroft further about the decision to invade Iraq but not to take action against Saudi Arabia, a question that gave Ashcroft pause before he responded with “I didn’t make that decision.” Only three questions were allowed to be asked.
At the end of the event one student lingered with a sign exclaiming “John Ashcroft is a war criminal.” They held the sign up in front of Ashcroft as he shook attendees’ hands but left without speaking with him. Another sign lay discarded in the trash.