Balkinization  

Friday, May 23, 2003

JB

Two Sobering Thoughts

Two things happened yesterday that gave me a start. The first was an e-mail from Jim Ryan, a visiting Professor from the University of Virginia. As I mentioned in a previous post, Jim and I were walking right outside the Yale Law School on Wall Street when the bomb exploded on Wednesday. A few minutes before that, we were talking over whether to go outside for coffee (it was drizzling) or go downstairs to dining hall to see if it was still open. I said I didn't mind the rain, so we went outdoors. Jim pointed out that if we had decided to go to the dining hall, we would have gone down the main staircase and past Room 120 just as the bomb went off.

I'll bet there are at least a hundred people at the Law School who had close calls of that sort, probably much closer calls than that. A few feet more down the main hallway, a decision to go left rather than right, all of those contingencies might have made the difference between safety and injury. As a community, we were incredibly lucky. Somebody up there must have been watching out for us.

The second start came when a group of agents from the FBI and ATF came to my house Thursday evening. This was my second interview of the day. They were utterly professional and polite. They did their jobs incredibly well. But the first words out of their mouths threw me for a loop.

"Professor, we'd like to ask you about some of your writings....."

For a second, just for a second, I thought: "Oh my God, John Ashcroft has finally sent them to round me up for all those anti-Bush op-eds I've written."

And sure enough, one of the agents put a folder on the table in front of me containing a copy of all my recent op-eds, downloaded from the Internet and neatly printed out.

It quickly became clear what was going on. They wanted to know if anything I had written might have enraged someone enough that the person might consider taking his or her frustrations out on the Law School. They asked me which of my recent op-eds had gotten the most virulent responses. They didn't seem to know about my blog, or indeed, about blogs in general (although perhaps they were just playing possum). I explained what a blog is and how it changes the audience for political writing, how the Internet changes the group of people who can react to what you are saying. They asked for an example, and I mentioned how one of my op-eds criticizing Bush had been picked up by the conservative site NewsMax and distributed to their readers by e-mail and on the Web as part of a special "Insider's Report." The idea, apparently, was to stoke up some resentment at what NewsMax called the "most demonic form" of the liberal academy, an "Elitist Yale Law Professor." That NewsMax story ends, by the way, with the following lovely quote:

Balkin's commentary reveals what we at NewsMax believe, that the real enemy is not from without. These evil folks have always been and always will be. The real enemy is within. Welcome to American academia.

I told the FBI and ATF agents that although I'd received plenty of hate mail, I had never gotten any death threats or threats against the school. Just a lot of letters and e-mails from people who really, really didn't like what I had to say. They showed me a couple of composite sketches and asked if I recognized them. (I didn't). Then we talked about possible theories of who would want to bomb the school and why. After about thirty or forty minutes, we shook hands, I wished them good luck, and they left.

They were just checking out possible leads, possible theories of the case. That's their job. And for that reason the agents had to ask me about what I'd written, and what people might have thought about it. But I came away from the interview very depressed. I very much didn't want to believe in this particular theory of the case-- the idea that some nut job attacked the school and endangered its students because he or she didn't like the political beliefs of some of its professors. There are a hundred other reasons, I've told myself, why that bomb could have been set off. It will turn out to be one of them, I know.

Above all, I don't want to believe it because it would just be too depressing if it were true.



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