And to think we’d heard it all when the Senate report on CIA torture gave us
that memorable headline phrase, “rectal rehydration.”
With hummus and pine nuts, it may be the gift that keeps on giving. But there’s
so much more in the stocking stuffer as we head into the holidays, beginning
If you’re a listener of the podcast, don’t worry. There’s no spoiler alert. It’s
impossible. The last episode has been released, but the dead do not miraculously
come back to life. The facts still don’t add up. And the convicted, Adnan Syed,
remains behind bars, despite all the doubts.
What happened to that “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard?
Sadly, that’s the way justice works in America. You doubt that? Defining
“reasonable” is harder than you think, especially if one’s judging a person of
I admit to being one of the millions who listened to the internet
podcast (it’s radio without the radio). I wasn’t
addicted, but I was an intermittent listener, drawn by the racial aspects of the
1999 case in which Syed, a young Pakistani American high school kid, was accused
of murdering his Korean American girlfriend, Hae Min Lee.
The idea of race-crossed teenaged lovers intrigued me, though the story as told
by Sarah Koenig keeps it too race-free for my tastes. (In the end, it’s her
wavering feelings about her own investigation that I think is the addiction for
most of the podcast’s fans, who are probably just like Sarah Koenig. I won’t
spoil that for you).
I mean, sure, matching up alibis, butt calls, the existence of pay phones at
Best Buy, are all fascinating. But it was the race aspects of the case that kept
Syed had said he kept his relationship secret because of the cultural and
religious differences. When he was accused of strangling his ex-girlfriend Hae
Min Lee, the prosecution seemed to zero in on those religious differences.
Stereotypes came in handy when the facts didn’t add up.
Why, of course he strangled his ex-girlfriend once she started dating someone
else. He’s a Muslim guy. Guilty.
Bigotry in action? Well, yes.
To understand that side, Rabia Chaudry’s
blog acts as a kind of racially
annotated Cliff Notes for “Serial.” Chaudry is the friend of Syed, who also grew
up in Baltimore and first contacted Koenig about the case.
There’s no doubt in her mind that race played a huge role in the outcome of this
case. This month in episode 10, Koenig got Chaudry’s reaction to a memo that
Koenig obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
The memo is from a consultant and details racial and religious information on
Muslims that became the subtext for the prosecution’s case against the 17-year
old accused. It could be subtitled “Muslim Stereotypes 101.”
Most disturbing is how the consultant somehow connects the dots and brings up
the notion of how Syed could see the murder of Lee as a “matter of honor.”
Chaudry was enraged and wrote on her blog:
Sarah asked me (like for real) if it’s true when a Muslim man gives a woman a
scarf it means he’s “marked” her as his territory. I wanted to say, “no, they
generally just pee on us”, but I refrained. And NO you ignorant uninformed
bigot, waste of tax dollar money consultant, killing women is neither
commonplace or a matter of honor for “ethnic” Pakistanis.
Her bottom line:
The truth is that Adnan, born and raised in the U.S. of A., was and is about as
American as the child of immigrants could get. He, much like my own brother,
knows next to nothing about Pakistan. I hope one day I’m able to take both him
and Saad, and hey anyone else who wants to come, on a tour of the motherland. As
uncomfortable as all the talk of Islam and Pakistan was for the rest of us, I
can only imagine how deeply distressful and bewildering it must have been for
The fact that State conflated Islam, Pakistan, Arabs, honor, culture, and a host
of other things is not proof that they understood Adnan and where he was coming
from. It was proof that their case was so weak they had to rely on bolstering
religious and ethnic bias and bigotry at trial in order to get their conviction.
A part of me hopes they didn’t really believe their own crap, but then I’m not
sure which is worse. That they believed it, or that they didn’t but used it to
convict an innocent boy anyway. Either way, they should be ashamed of
Of course, I feel for the Lee family and their loss. But there’s something
really wrong about this pre-9/11 case, when Islamophobia was assumed and not
We question it now.
There’s an appeal ruling in January, and a breakthrough finding in the offing.
But the race stuff has always been there. It’s always present in the justice
system. It’s just too often black and white. It’s rare when a case involves both
a South Asian and an East Asian. People don’t know how to think about us or just
link us to the motherland, when, indeed, we’re not foreigners at all, we’re all
Or they simply rely on the stereotypes that work best for the situation.
And that’s where “Serial” comes in. As an investigative podcast, it gave
credibility to a 15-year-old case as one that still needed some truth wrung out
of it. But it’s the reaction of Koenig that’s the most instructive. As
sophisticated as Koenig and her elite NPR-ish audience is, her reaction shows
that even among the smart set, people are still in the dark about Asian
Americans in general, South Asians in particular.
Add Islam into the mix, and ignorance is guaranteed.
For those hopelessly addicted to “Serial,” we can celebrate the fact that the
perps of the Sony hack didn’t decide to screw up the podcast servers of
“Serial”/This American Life.
Now that would have upset the American intelligentsia!
The entire thing is an affront to intelligence. Maybe even more than the actual
movie in question, “The Interview,” a comedy whose central premise is the
attempted assassination of Kim Jong Un. It’s a joke, and not a real threat. Not
even if South Koreans really plan to get DVDs and balloon drop them into the
North, it’s still a satire.
Does it matter? It’s just a communication. And the leader is p.o.’ed.
But let’s try to humanize the poor fellow, the leader of North Korea. Put
yourself in Kim Jong Un’s shoes. Wouldn’t you be sensitive to people making fun
of wanting to kill you?
I’m not asking for a gr oup hug. But this is something Kim Jong Il would never
have done. The South Park guys skewered him in “Team America” in 2004. Now, I
thought that was racist, but Papa knew how to ignore fictional shenanigans.
Kim Jong Un? He’s concerned. Maybe it goes back to when he kept the fade but
stopped perming his hair. Still, this should make us all wonder. If he acts this
way to a joke, what would Kim really think of the important issues—like sharing
a name with a Kardashian?
This is, after all, the man who calls Dennis Rodman a friend.
Maybe it’s too much to demand that things be rational. And maybe that’s what Kim
wants. You never know what he’ll do next.
Maybe he really is being responsible. North Korea’s a nuclear nation. Cyberwar
is what Kim does for fun. A little more aggressive than mere sabre-rattling,
it’s cheaper than plutonium and can give him exactly what he wants. Top of mind
presence in the West, and a little respect.
But this sort of thing puts us in a whole new ball game. The lines have been
redrawn. The bad guys have advanced. And the movie industry has retreated. First
Amendment? Well, the government didn’t shut down the movie. Corporate America
It’s a bad precedent. As the FBI officially links the hack to North Korea, the
longer it takes the president and the nation to react, the more likely we are to
see more of the same. In that sense, President Obama’s initial response was just
what was needed for now. At his year-end news conference, he stood his ground.
“We will respond proportionately,” said the president. “In a manner we choose.”
But he was also clear about Sony, when asked if they made a mistake. The
president was blunt: “Yes, they made a mistake. I wish they had spoken to me
The president properly sees censorship, and self-censorship, as the real fears.
And certainly, it’s already being felt in the artistic community.
George Clooney practically seems like Paul Revere sounding the alarm. In an
he said he tried to rally other stars to back up Sony to stand up to the
hackers. But Clooney said those he approached, the biggest names in Hollywood,
wouldn’t sign his petition and, in fact, ran for the hills. It was predictable
after the first round of leaks of Sony’s embarrassing Obama jokes. But when it
came time to stand up to the hackers, Clooney found no one to rally.
The cowards chose to hide.
That doesn’t sound like America, but we do find ourselves unprepared in a new
JOHN YOO’S DEFINITION OF TORTURE
In any argument, it’s all about the definitions. So when the Senate torture
report was released on Dec. 9, I was riveted to all of the new forms of torture.
Learned helplessness? Sleep deprivation? Waterboarding? Rectal rehydration?
And it was painful to be reminded that it was an Asian American behind the legal
justification of it all.
All? Well, yes. It was John Yoo, now a law professor at UC Berkeley, who as a
young Justice Department attorney drew the lines of acceptable torture. Not
President Bush, not the CIA. In fact, Bush was kept in the dark on the matter.
From reports, he just wanted to make sure it was legal.
Yoo was the one who gave them the guidelines. As he’s quick to point out, he
didn’t implement anything. He just told people to color inside the lines he
To be fair, let’s look at Yoo’s background. His family immigrated to America
from Korea. He was an Asian American of privilege, living in the ritzy parts of
Philadelphia, attending private schools, and even my alma mater, Harvard. He
went to Yale Law School and clerked for conservative Supreme Court Justice
Yoo says he’s bored hanging out
with conservatives all the time. Indeed, he’s married to the daughter of the war
correspondent Peter Arnett, whom Yoo refers to as a liberal. He likes hanging
out in record shops in Berkeley where he confesses to liking U2 and the Who. He
says he’s pro-choice and even believes in gay marriage.
But when his then client, President Bush, asked him as a 34-year-old attorney to
define torture, he was quick to give him what he wanted.
When it came to defining torture, Yoo was clear about the power of the
presidency and torture.
It didn’t stop at bamboo under the fingernails. It didn’t stop at a little
He asked himself this: “Has Congress ever used this phrase [“death, organ
failure, or permanent damage”] anywhere ever before?”
He found the definition in a law about health care, then made it part of his
And that’s where he drew the line–at “Death, organ failure or permanent damage.”
“Now you can say those words are shocking because they’re too clear,” he told
_Esquire _magazine in 2008, but he didn’t want to make some vague standard.“This
is unpleasant. Don’t interpret what I’m saying as, Oh, I was happy to do this or
eager, or I felt some satisfaction,” Yoo said. “I mean, it’s a difficult issue.
You have to draw the line. What the government is doing is unpleasant. It’s the
use of violence. I don’t disagree with that. But I also think that part of the
job, unfortunately, of being a lawyer sometimes is you have to draw those lines.
I think I could have written it in a much more — we could have written it in a
much more palatable way, but it would have been vague. I could have said — We
could have drawn a different line.”
But he didn’t, and even to this day, Yoo said he’d do the same.
It’s hard not to read the Torture Report and think of John Yoo.
THANK GOODNESS FOR MARCUS MARIOTA
It’s Christmas time, and whether or not you are Christian, we all tend to get
caught up in the goodness of the season. That’s why it’s hard to deal with such
things as torture, terror, cyberhacks, and a 15-year-old murder case that may
have convicted an innocent man.
That’s also why the good Lord gave us Marcus
Mariota, the first Asian American
of Polynesian descent from Hawaii to win the Heisman Trophy as the best college
football player in the land.
We don’t see many Asian Americans in football, let alone as the star
quarterback. So Mariota’s excellence is such a rare thing, he puts the “P” in
AAPI, standing before the nation as a role model for all Poly athletes.
But more winning is his humility. In an era when jocks are all showtime and
bling, Mariota seems “bling-less.” Though he did show off the trophy when he won
the Heisman, his speech and the ceremony were a much needed antidote to all the
things that have marred the season.
Mariota’s victory was a reminder of a message that is too often forgotten in
this venal, mercenary world: The good still triumph.
And now as I strike my Heisman pose, the best of the season to all, from your