By the time a tidily dressed member of the Young America's Foundation took the stage at UNC's Memorial Hall on Sept. 12 to announce, "Any disruptions of the event are a violation of the honor code and will be handled appropriately," it was too late. That's probably why the newly renovated theater, with its world-class acoustics system, resounded with laughter. John Ashcroft would soon take the stage. Of course there would be disruptions.
A few dozen protesters had already assembled on the brick courtyard outside. A woman draped in a rainbow flag held the corner of a multicolored banner that asked, "Do you know where your civil liberties are today?" And across from her, a woman in oversized red sunglasses held a sign that reminded passersby, "John Ashcroft opposes abortion in all cases including rape." There were radical cheerleaders in tights and tank tops, people dancing, a guy wearing a Palestinian scarf and an old bearded man wearing a fisherman's hat, who was pounding a drum to the tune of new age music.
I sat in the back row, next to a pleasant and chatty college senior named Mary. She'd come in a show of solidarity with Ashcroft, she told me. "He doesn't know I'm here, but I know I'm here," she said as she eyed the crowd, picking out likely rabble-rousers.
Ashcroft opened with a few jokes before settling into the meat of his address about the government's role in the war on terror. "Freedom and justice are more profoundly served when an attack is prevented than when people are prosecuted," he said heroically, his voice gravelly and stentorian. Audience members screamed, sighed audibly and sucked their teeth at his every word. "This is so stressful," Mary said.
"I've had enough of this," the bearded drummer muttered to himself as he walked out.
I happened to be sitting next to a few activists. After one apparently uttered one jeer too many, a short muscular man with a reddish-brown crew cut stood up and gave him a swift punch to the back. I can still hear the thud. "Stop talking," he said through his tightly clenched teeth, pointing his finger. "He hit me!" the activist, clearly not a fighter, hollered as he turned around. A police officer hauled them both outside. Everyone applauded.
At 7:27 p.m., 50 or 60 people in white T-shirts stood and quietly left the theater. A few minutes later, another guy in white stood, checked the time and marched out on his own, apparently having failed to synchronize his watch.
"I am not built for this kind of stress!" Mary said, squirming in her seat a bit. She gathered her belongings and left.
Ashcroft concluded his speech and received a standing ovation. By that time, most of the protesters had left. "Freedom ennobles us, empowers us and will make America endure," Ashcroft said, beaming.
A question-and-answer period followed. Why wasn't the United States zealous in pursuit of liberty in Rwanda and Cambodia? Do you have empathy for the people of Palestine? What action do you regret?
A kid in front of me had his hand raised the whole time; every few seconds he'd jab it in the air higher, but Ashcroft didn't call on him. When the speech was over, I followed him outside through a phalanx of protesters, who'd quadrupled in numbers and noise. "What were you going to ask?" I said.
"When two nations are at war with each other, they can sign a peace accord," he answered. "How will we know when it's the end of the war on terror?"