A stocking stuffer full of “Serial,” North Korea’s Sony hack, John Yoo’s torture memo, and Marcus Mariota for the holidays


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 with…


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 color.

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 me lingering.

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 Adnan.

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 themselves.

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 questioned.

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 American.

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 blinked.

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 first.”

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 interview, 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 world.


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 provided.

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 Clarence Thomas.

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 water.

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 torture memos.

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.


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 amok friend.

Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator.
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The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.
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