Torture, Belmont Law School, and the Banality of Evil

17

January 21, 2012 by Kate Savage

This morning, five of us went to a class of Constitutional Law at Belmont University. We are not Belmont Law students, and we hadn’t done our reading.

We had done some different homework, though, spurred by news that Belmont had just hired Alberto Gonzales as its “Distinguished Chair of Law.” We researched what this man did as one of the chief architects of the Bush Administrations’ torture policies, authorizing waterboarding and other physical abuse of fellow human beings in US custody. That from his position of power, he argued that the protections of prisoners called for in the Geneva Convention were outdated and “quaint.” That he never expressed remorse for any of this.

And this person who gave a green light to torture was now teaching Constitutional Law.

The class was small, around twenty students, and as soon as the Distinguished Professor Gonzales entered, he knew instantly we weren’t supposed to be there. “I don’t allow visitors,” he said.

“We just want to ask questions,” Mark responded. “If you’re teaching constitutional law this semester, will you be teaching human rights next?”

“Yep. You need to leave.”

Tristan stood and placed a black hood over his head, while we opened other questions: Do you consider the constitution to be as quaint and outdated as the Geneva Conventions? I assume you’re against the 8th Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment–but how about the First? Is that on ok, or also obsolete? What about search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment–is that one out?

We already knew we weren’t supposed to be there, and eventually someone with Authority would force us to leave. What I hadn’t expected was the immediate, decisive reaction of the students. Their faces hardened instantly into anger.

Will you leave?
Just leave.
Don’t waste our time here.
We paid for these classes.
We have more important things to do.
We need to get through sixty pages of material.
Leave.
Get out.

None of the students would take our flier with information on Gonzales’ history and the demonstration that others were hosting at the edge of campus. Belmont University is a religious school. The woman sitting in front of me had a shirt that asked “What does the Lord Require?” During the entire event, she stared forward at her textbook. Is this because she’s thinking about torture, or because she was trying to finish her assigned reading?

Conversations at the demonstration after that restored my faith in Belmont students, in their fundamental interest in the big questions, regardless of political persuasions. But the law student responses left me reeling, set cold in my stomach: What is Law, then? A police detail made sure we stayed on the ‘public’ side of the sidewalk, regularly reminding me that I would be arrested if I crossed the line. And I knew I would, knew I would be hauled off to Metro Jail for Criminal Trespass like they promised, but all I could think of was those law school students. What is law, where someone who opens the country to torturing others will be a distinguished professor, and I will be handcuffed for a stride over the groove in the sidewalk? What sort of Constitutional Law do you learn in a classroom where talking about the professor’s torture is a waste of your expensive time?

The banality of evil is sixty pages of a Constitutional Law textbook. Sixty pages that likely leave you bone-tired at night and worried about next morning’s grade, and surely not interested in asking whether your very nice professor has caused other humans to feel so much bodily pain they actually wish to die.

17 thoughts on “Torture, Belmont Law School, and the Banality of Evil

  1. Kate says:

    Great piece Katy. Thanks so much for sharing.

    I wish, wish, wish law school spent more time on asking “what is the law, then?”

    I wish, wish, wish more regular ol’ citizens would think about this too. What is law? Why do some people get punished & others never seem to?

    I also wish you could come to my panel at the J. Rueben Clark Society (Mormon lawyers) in February about the tension between the 12th article of Faith & unjust laws.

  2. Floyd Fitzgibbons says:

    Along these lines, here’s what I wrote after the second to last presidential debate:

    There was a point in tonight’s Presidential debate where the crowd railed against Ron Paul’s position opposing pre-emptive wars and the lack of living by the rule of law. The crowd was rabid, blood-thirsty and seething with a spirit of vengeance against manufactured enemies and none of the other Establishment candidates defended him (of course). Far too many of our citizens have bought the war propaganda and think nothing of the precepts taught in Judeo-Christian principles. The Book of Mormon (which Romney is supposed to believe) even warns of this warmongering!
    Mormon 9:
    5 For so exceedingly do they anger that it seemeth me that they have no fear of death; and they have lost their love, one towards another; and they thirst after blood and revenge continually.
    6 And now, my beloved son, notwithstanding their hardness, let us labor diligently; for if we should cease to labor, we should be brought under condemnation; for we have a labor to perform whilst in this tabernacle of clay, that we may conquer the enemy of all righteousness, and rest our souls in the kingdom of God.

  3. Realist says:

    As a Belmont Law student, let me ask you how exactly you thought you would be received? You interrupted our class with your ridiculous actions which none of us cared about. We all have our own opinions, and Professor Gonzales has been open and honest, happy to address our concerns. Furthermore, he offered to answer your questions after class. I disagree with a lot of what was done, but I also respect his knowledge and insight, and I am thrilled he is at Belmont.

    • I remember that attitude when I was in Law School. I had it for awhile. Your narrow vision and focus on your self is causing you to miss the fact that you just had a magnificent learning experience and you are trying to ignore it. Law can be studied and practiced as an abstract or it can studied and practiced as a practical system that interacts with the real world.

      I only hope that your clients don’t suffer from the same arrogance you demonstrated here and in class.

  4. Aulmerican says:

    This is an interesting post. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone rolled into a class that you paid for and interrupted it to have a discussion with your professor? How about if they had a bone to pick with your doctor and decided to cloud up and rain down on him while he was delivering your child? Would you like it if someone protest your wedding because they, for whatever reason, felt that they had some reason to protest the service? If you went to fine restaurant and ordered a meal, would you sit quietly if a protest interrupted your service? I suspect you would say “Hey guys, there is a time and place for these kinds of things, and this isn’t it.”

    You have confused your first amendment protections with a protection from the criticism and opposition of others exercising their first amendment rights. The students were only voicing their opposition of the timing of the protest, not the protest itself.

    Law schools are places where people from different backgrounds, with different beliefs, can come together and have a discussion about controversial topics in a way that is much different than your typical liberal arts classroom. Perhaps you wanted them all to cheer what you perceive to be your valiant efforts to right some past wrong, but they exercised their first amendment rights to voice opposition of your choice of timing and venue. It is naive to construe their reactions as some passive endorsement of an interrogation tactic of which you do not approve.

    Lawyers, whether you like them or not, are advocates for the protection of the constitutional rights of their clients. If those clients are private citizens, they are working to expand or maintain rights. If the client is a government entity, they are working to reduce or maintain rights. One of your problems is with your government, not with those students. The other problem is with the person responsible for choosing to interrupt a class, where you admit that you did not belong, for some political gain.

    I am really glad to see someone admit that they rudely interrupted a class to protest the professor. You have been much more forthcoming than the good people affiliated with occupynashville.org.

    http://occupynashville.org/2012/01/20/national-lawyers-guild-tennessee-chapter-protests-gonzales-at-belmont/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=national-lawyers-guild-tennessee-chapter-protests-gonzales-at-belmont

    • Carl says:

      No Aulmerican,

      I wouldn’t mind at all “If I went to fine restaurant and ordered a meal … [and] a protest interrupted [my] service”

      If that someone was guilty of torture and the destruction of one of the most single basic moral principles upon which hangs the very foundation of civility – I wouldn’t mind at all. There are other “doctors” around, that don’t torture people. There are other “restaurants” that don’t torture people. And to defend, as a student of law, such a person!! I’ts just incomprehensible. Back to 1st grade.

      So no, I wouldn’t mind at all if my service was interrupted and I had a chance to get someone else to provide that service, especially if that service was teaching law! I would get someone that doesn’t think torture is an American right, because that is just an automatic disqualification.

      Goodness …

  5. katysavage says:

    I think the comments by Realist and Aulamerican are good indications by what Arendt meant by the ‘banality of evil.’ That it always seems to be acting appropriately, it’s always carried out by people who seem to be decent, friendly citizens. It doesn’t look like crime. And opposing it is so difficult because it’s awkward, and inappropriate.

    What the Nuremburg trials cracked open is the possibility that there is some foundational moral law which stretches, uncomfortably, beyond appropriateness. I don’t think we have answered how this would look if people who valued law took it seriously.

    Thanks for your comments!

  6. tariq says:

    Banality of evil is exactly right. These sophists like Gonzales are so polite and polished in “civilized society”, they put on suits and ties, are nice to their coworkers, and then get to work causing unnecessary pain and misery on a truly psychotic scale, all in the name of “just doing their jobs”. Gonzales was such a cowardly tool too. Not only was he a part of creating torture policies, he let the Bush administration use him as a shield.

    For those students who were annoyed at the injustice of activists interrupting your class (that you paid for nonetheless!), I say boo hoo. Imagine the injustice of being kidnapped, imprisoned without trial, denied due process, and tortured. That’s what your distinguished professor was a part of. Why should an architect of torture be afforded even a moment of peace? Why are you sitting in a classroom learning “law” from a scumbag like that? All you’re going to learn from him is how to be a tool of a corrupt administration. It sounds to me like these activists were far more polite to Gonzales than “interrogators” are to the people they torture.

  7. Realist says:

    Aww Tariq, how cute. I bet you learned all of this in that Philosophy class you took while majoring in Art and/or English. Now this makes you an expert in all things, especially human rights. I bet you are also one of the morons that protest the men and women fighting overseas protecting your right to sit on the computer all day and collect unemployment. That is so evil, I can’t believe those “sophist” employers. They get all dressed up and act all polished, only to cause you misery by not taking you serious. It has to be their evils that cause this, not the fact that you spend your day doing ridiculous things like this “protest.” Nice job by the way guys, I know when I want to be taken seriously, the first thing I do is put on a mask.

    “Why are you sitting in a classroom learning “law” from a scumbag like that?” Well, for starters you obviously do not know much about law school. I know you like to think we are sitting in class being taught how to torture individuals (maybe we are…ohhhh), but law school, unlike your community college, is an open forum. You are free at anytime to express your opinions and beliefs. There are no correct answers or views, it is about supporting your views based on the law and the facts before you.

    These “activists” as you call them (I wouldn’t go that far, looked more like an elementary school play) were very “polite.” Nothing says polite like interrupting a class to vomit pointless arguments that nobody cares about. Good job making the entire class pay for your disagreement with one individual (Very 99% of you.). What is even more impressive is the huge turnout these “activists” put together. I counted about 8 total “activists” (bitter unemployed) in a city of roughly 750,000 people. You all are obviously speaking for the masses. Keep fighting the good fight, cause we really enjoy the laughter.

    • tariq says:

      I never majored in art or English (not that there is anything wrong with majoring in those subjects). Nor do I collect unemployment checks as I am not unemployed. Also, I am a military veteran so don’t try to tell me a bunch of BS about soldiers protecting my freedom. You made some assumptions that are way off. Sorry I don’t fit into the stereotype you made up in your head. Please explain though, as you clearly are a brilliant scholar of law, how it is that soldiers killing people in the middle east protects my right to “sit around on the computer all day and collect unemployment.” And how does torture protect such freedom?

    • Carl says:

      I would be thrilled if my professor was interrupted by a real life event and had to answer real life questions. You’ve clearly missed and opportunity there – Realist.

      Oh, and another thing … torture is against the law.

  8. Joseph says:

    Mormon Worker was silent for so long, and then there was such a burst of new posts I didn’t see this one at first. I’m glad others commented on it so that I didn’t completely miss it.

    Thanks “realist” (whose reality?) and “aulmerican” (?) for helping to reinforce stereotypes about lawyers. I especially enjoyed the elitist dismissals of well-rounded educations for the sake of learning rather than just cold-heartedly trying to make money, as well as the community colleges that give opportunities to many intelligent individuals who otherwise would have been denied an education.

    As for Alberto Gonzalez’s views on the 1st Amendment and related issues, I think that’s already been established:

    http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1597085,00.html

    • Interested in you says:

      “The side that knows when to fight and when not to will take the victory.” – Sun-tzu, The Art of Warfare

  9. Mimi says:

    Our book is 1390 plus pages of constitutional issues up for debate. Maybe you should come to every class and force us to listen to your opinions on each one.

    To Carl, who says we missed an opportunity: We as law students spend hours and hours of our time debating and contemplating “real life events.” We look at thousands of issues from every legal vantage point, moral side, societal and international standpoint. We are forced to come up with arguments for, and against, look at the history, and contemplate the future of each issue. Sorry if we aren’t interested in the opinion of 4 nit-wits and a guy with a bag on his head.

    I happen to believe that waterboarding is not torture. It’s unfortunate we have to turn to such methods to protect our citizens from terrorist murderers, but I am glad our government is willing to go to such lengths to save innocent lives. If my child’s life could be through information I could obtain through this method, I couldn’t get the hose fast enough.

    That’s only my opinion and fortunately for you, you can choose to read this or move on. The protestors that snuck into our classroom did not give us that option.

    • tariq says:

      Oh, you poor thing. Protesters “forced” you to listen to them. How horrible. Much worse than getting kidnapped, imprisoned, and tortured by armed thugs. Your life is so hard.
      I especially liked your phrases, “waterboarding is not torture” and “protect our citizens from terrorist murderers.” Gonzales has trained you well in the art of sophistry.

      • Jack says:

        32000 dollars is on the line and they asked questions that were already answered. I would be pissed too had I been in that class.

  10. Mimi says:

    Our book is 1390 plus pages of constitutional issues up for debate. Maybe you should come to every class and force us to listen to your opinions on each one.

    To Carl, who says we missed an opportunity: We as law students spend hours and hours of our time debating and contemplating “real life events” for at least 3 years straight. We look at thousands of issues from every legal vantage point, moral side, societal and international standpoint. We are forced to come up with arguments for, and against, look at the history, and contemplate the future of each issue. Sorry if we aren’t interested in the opinion of 4 nit-wits and a guy with a bag on his head.
    I happen to believe that waterboarding is not torture. It’s unfortunate we have to turn to such methods to protect our citizens from terrorist murderers, but I am glad our government is willing to go to great lengths to save innocent lives. If my child’s life could be through information I could obtain through this method, I couldn’t get the hose fast enough.

    That’s only my opinion and fortunately for you, you can choose to read this or move on. The protestors that snuck into our classroom did not give us that option.

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