|The following is a letter read by Claire Braz-Valentine, the author, at this year's In Celebration of the Muse, Cabrillo College. Also, read Noonday in the Shade (copied below.)
AN OPEN LETTER TO JOHN ASHCROFT, ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE UNITED STATES
On January 28, 2002, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that he spent $8,000 of taxpayer's money for drapes to cover up the exposed breast of The Spirit of Justice, an 18 ft aluminum statue of a woman that stands in the Department of Justice's Hall of Justice.
John, John, John, you've got your priorities all wrong. While men fly airplanes into skyscrapers, dive bomb the pentagon, while they stick explosives into their shoes, and then book a seat right next to us, while they hide knives in their luggage, steal kids on school buses, take little girls from their beds at night, drive trucks into our state capital buildings, while our president calls dangerous men all over the world evildoers and devils, while we live in the threat of biological warfare, nuclear destruction, annihilation, you are out buying yardage to save Americans from the appalling alarming, abominable aluminum alloy of evil, that terrible ten foot tin tittie. You might not be able to find Bin Laden, but you sure as hell found the hooter in the hall of justice. It's not that we aren't grateful. But while we were begging the women of Afghanistan to not cover up their faces, you are begging your staff members to just cover up that nipple, to save the American people from that monstrous metal mammary.
How can we ever thank you?
So, in your office every morning, in your secret prayer meeting, while an American woman is sexually assaulted every 6 seconds, while anthrax floats around the post office and settles in the chest of senior citizens, you've got another chest on your mind. While American sons arrive home in body bags and heat seeking missiles fly around a foreign country looking for any warm body, you think of another body. And you pray for the biggest bra in the world. John, you see that breast on the Spirit of Justice in the spirit of your own inhibited sexuality.
And when we women see our grandmothers, our mothers, our daughters, our granddaughters, our sisters, ourselves, when we women see that statue, the Spirit of Justice, we see the spirit of strength, the spirit of survival. Every day we view innocent bodies dragged out of rubble, and women and children laid out like thin limp dolls and baptized into death as collateral damage, and we see the hollow-eyed Afghani mother whose milk has dried up underneath her burka in famine, in shame, and her children are dead at her breast. While you look at that breast, John, that jug on the Spirit of Justice, and deal with your thoughts of lust and sex and nakedness, we see it as a testimony to motherhood.
You see it as a tit.
It's not the money it cost. It's the message you send. We've got the right to live in freedom. We've got the right to cheat Americans out of millions of dollars and then just not want to tell Congress about it. We've got the right to drop bombs, night and day, on a small country that has no army, no navy, no military at all, because we've got the right to bear arms. But we just better not even think about the right to bare breasts.
So now John, you can be photographed while you stand there and talk about guns and bombs and poisons without that breast appearing over your right shoulder, without that bodacious bosom bothering you and we just wanted to tell you in the spirit of justice, in the spirit of truth, John, there is still one very big boob left standing there in that picture.
June 22, 2004
Noonday in the Shade
By PAUL KRUGMAN
In April 2003, John Ashcroft's Justice Department disrupted what appears to have been a horrifying terrorist plot. In the small town of Noonday, Tex., F.B.I. agents discovered a weapons cache containing fully automatic machine guns, remote-controlled explosive devices disguised as briefcases, 60 pipe bombs and a chemical weapon a cyanide bomb big enough to kill everyone in a 30,000-square-foot building.
Strangely, though, the attorney general didn't call a press conference to announce the discovery of the weapons cache, or the arrest of William Krar, its owner. He didn't even issue a press release. This was, to say the least, out of character. Jose Padilla, the accused "dirty bomber," didn't have any bomb-making material or even a plausible way to acquire such material, yet Mr. Ashcroft put him on front pages around the world. Mr. Krar was caught with an actual chemical bomb, yet Mr. Ashcroft acted as if nothing had happened.
Incidentally, if Mr. Ashcroft's intention was to keep the case low-profile, the media have been highly cooperative. To this day, the Noonday conspiracy has received little national coverage.
At this point, I have the usual problem. Writing about John Ashcroft poses the same difficulties as writing about the Bush administration in general, only more so: the truth about his malfeasance is so extreme that it's hard to avoid sounding shrill.
In this case, it sounds over the top to accuse Mr. Ashcroft of trying to bury news about terrorists who don't fit his preferred story line. Yet it's hard to believe that William Krar wouldn't have become a household name if he had been a Muslim, or even a leftist. Was Mr. Ashcroft, who once gave an interview with Southern Partisan magazine in which he praised "Southern patriots" like Jefferson Davis, reluctant to publicize the case of a terrorist who happened to be a white supremacist?
More important, is Mr. Ashcroft neglecting real threats to the public because of his ideological biases?
Mr. Krar's arrest was the result not of a determined law enforcement effort against domestic terrorists, but of a fluke: when he sent a package containing counterfeit U.N. and Defense Intelligence Agency credentials to an associate in New Jersey, it was delivered to the wrong address. Luckily, the recipient opened the package and contacted the F.B.I. But for that fluke, we might well have found ourselves facing another Oklahoma City-type atrocity.
The discovery of the Texas cyanide bomb should have served as a wake-up call: 9/11 has focused our attention on the threat from Islamic radicals, but murderous right-wing fanatics are still out there. The concerns of the Justice Department, however, appear to lie elsewhere. Two weeks ago a representative of the F.B.I. appealed to an industry group for help in combating what, he told the audience, the F.B.I. regards as the country's leading domestic terrorist threat: ecological and animal rights extremists.
Even in the fight against foreign terrorists, Mr. Ashcroft's political leanings have distorted policy. Mr. Ashcroft is very close to the gun lobby and these ties evidently trump public protection. After 9/11, he ordered that all government lists including voter registration, immigration and driver's license lists be checked for links to terrorists. All government lists, that is, except one: he specifically prohibited the F.B.I. from examining background checks on gun purchasers.
Mr. Ashcroft told Congress that the law prohibits the use of those background checks for other purposes but he didn't tell Congress that his own staff had concluded that no such prohibition exists. Mr. Ashcroft issued a directive, later put into law, requiring that records of background checks on gun buyers be destroyed after only one business day.
And we needn't imagine that Mr. Ashcroft was deeply concerned about protecting the public's privacy. After all, a few months ago he took the unprecedented step of subpoenaing the hospital records of women who have had late-term abortions.
After my last piece on Mr. Ashcroft, some readers questioned whether he is really the worst attorney general ever. It's true that he has some stiff competition from the likes of John Mitchell, who served under Richard Nixon. But once the full record of his misdeeds in office is revealed, I think Mr. Ashcroft will stand head and shoulders below the rest.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
Also read: Women's Rights: Why Not? New York Times
Also read: The Evil That Lurks in the Enemy Within. New York Times
Also read: Creapy Indeed Ashcroft Petitions Justices for Secrecy in Deportations. New York Times
Ms. Hill's column below:
June 6, 2002
Insider Women With Outsider Values
By ANITA F. HILL
ALTHAM, Mass. It's hard to imagine a less likely fictional plot than the true story of Coleen Rowley. A memo from a Minneapolis suburban mother of four calls into question the accountability of one of the country's most impenetrable government agencies, the F.B.I. And by sending this memo, 30 years after the bureau hired its first woman agent, a woman becomes a key player in the overhaul of an institution whose structure and priorities have largely gone unquestioned since the time of J. Edgar Hoover.
It may be an overstatement to say that in setting the stage for changes in the bureau, Coleen Rowley did what no president has done. But the significance of Robert S. Mueller's redesigned F.B.I. cannot be overstated, and even the most skeptical concede that the changes would never have seemed so urgent or received so much public attention were it not for Ms. Rowley's 13-page letter detailing the bureau's failures and deficiencies in responding to information leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks.
The magnitude of Ms. Rowley's role in exposing the mishandling of vital intelligence has no direct parallel. However, it can be likened in the private sector to the central role that Sherron Watkins played in exposing the extent of corporate culpability in the Enron scandal. In August 2001, just weeks before the company's collapse, Ms. Watkins warned Kenneth Lay, Enron's chairman, of improper accounting and management practices. And in January she testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee about the explicit warnings she had written in her memo to him. When the dust settles from all the investigations into the Enron debacle, not only are criminal indictments likely, but so are accounting and corporate governance reforms.
Ms. Rowley and Ms. Watkins are two women who rose through the ranks of male-dominated institutions to become insiders. Yet the not-too-distant history of male exclusivity in their institutions meant both were outsiders as well. As whistle-blowers they expressed certain values and had the conviction to act on values that were apparently in conflict with those of the leaders in their institutions.
But values alone do not explain their ability to challenge the leadership. Both needed the status to support their criticisms. As the general counsel in the F.B.I. Minneapolis field office and a vice president at Enron, the two women had more than impressive job titles; they had access to information, authority over others and positions in the chain of command that gave them access to the leadership.
But as they ascended to positions of authority, they must also have been conscious of the traditions of the institutions in which they served.
Coleen Rowley must have been aware of discrimination others in the F.B.I. had faced. It was in 1971 that the bureau admitted women in its training program for agents. In 1994, one of the two women admitted in 1971 sued the F.B.I., saying that throughout her career she had been subjected to sex discrimination. In the past decade the agency has been the subject of lawsuits by women, as well as blacks and Hispanics, charging widespread discrimination in hiring and promotion practices.
The industry in which Sherron Watkins succeeded was no more friendly to women than the F.B.I. The Texas energy and oil industry is known to be dominated by men, to have cultivated arrogance and to have had its own share of discrimination scandals.
Though each woman had attained respected insider status, I can't help but wonder whether, given their gender and the nature of the institutions, the feeling of being inside was complete. This uncertainty may have caused them to consider whether their gender would be used as the basis for ignoring their complaints or attacking them as malcontents in retaliation for their criticisms.
To speak out made Ms. Rowley and Ms. Watkins outsiders among colleagues who remained silent, and perhaps that was exacerbated when superiors waved aside their criticisms. Yet perhaps their experiences as women in traditionally male workplaces heightened their awareness of resistance to much needed change and deepened their commitment to making it happen.
Given the time during which they came of age professionally, their successes are neither coincidental nor surprising. Both no doubt benefited from changes in the law and in society that give women better opportunities to advance in male-dominated industries. But is it a coincidence that the whistle-blowers in what may turn out to be the most significant examples of government incompetence and corporate wrongdoing in our time are women? I don't think so.
I think the increase in the number of women in positions of prominence, coupled with the tension that can develop between insider status and outsider values, brings us to this point. A similar phenomenon is at work when women and men complain about discrimination in the workplace. And like those who have had to challenge workplace bias, Ms. Rowley and Ms. Watkins differed from their superiors in their notions of appropriate institutional conduct. Similarly, Ms. Rowley and Ms. Watkins ultimately found that their chances for bringing change to their workplaces existed only outside those workplaces.
Coincidence or not, the fact is that in the public and private sectors the number of women in positions of authority is growing. As their numbers increase, so will their opportunities, not only to be whistle-blowers but, more important, to shape institutional standards from the top.
Anita F. Hill is a professor of law, social policy and women's studies at the Heller Graduate School at Brandeis University.