My Dinner with John Yoo

The other night,  I had dinner with my girlfriend’s parents at Chez Panisse. Its an odd place, not much food and upwards of forty bucks for a complete meal. Not the kind of place I would really dine had it not been for the invitation. It was pleasant; I like her parents and they’re sweet to me. About halfway through the dinner, I noticed that the booths were bordered by a mirrored wall on one side, and looking at that mirror in the booth ahead of us, I saw a face that, bit by bit, grew shockingly familiar. It took me a few minutes to be sure, but yes, it was unindicted war criminal John Yoo.

It shouldn’t have been much of a surprise. Yoo lives in Berkeley and teaches at Cal, so the reasoning would go that he also eats out in its well-known fancy eateries from time to time. I have to say I was shell-shocked anyway, overcome by a sort of paralyzing rage and a frantic internal discussion with my disparate halves, which spilled out over the dinner table and probably ruined the time for my party in the form of my sullen demeanor. On the one hand, I was angry with my party, because I was convinced that if they had not been there, I would have at least thrown my wine in his face. I did have to admit to myself, however, that I was not that person anymore and that even in the unlikely event of dining in such a restaurant by myself, I may not have done anything so dramatic.

I’ve lived a life punctuated by outbursts and uprisings against authority, none of that has ever ended well. I’ve lost much in the process, and not even scratched the carapace of our state military apparatus [and its allies]. Its taken a few years, but I’ve amassed a few things that are precious to me. My girlfriend, for one. My beautiful apartment, the nicest dwelling I’ve ever lived in; my carefully created study, its homemade desk, the chalkboard I found in the street, my forty dollar Ikea leather arm chair, my laptop. And then there’s UC Berkeley; the two years I spent in community college, the lung surgery I had during my last semester, the four point oh I worked to pull out anyway, the application process, and everything I’ve gone through since to achieve my dream of getting a degree.

I felt like I had a heavy manacle around my ankle, because for the first time in my life I had something to lose! If I went to jail for a few days, a week or a month, all of the work I’ve done over the past few years would be lost. And it could never be made up. My girlfriends parents would never understand–they had  no idea who John Yoo was when I told them, and their eyes glazed over as I explained the litany of his crimes. On top of everything else, there would be this rift between us. I also know that merely coming face t0 back of head with John Yoo is only part of the equation. I currently attend a school where John Yoo is probably there a few days out of the week, and its never occurred to me to do anything about it. Being in that restaurant only highlighted the reality that we’re living face to face and shoulder to shoulder with torturers, with killers, with the developers of inhuman weaponry and political constructions.

In the end, I directed a laser-like glare at Yoo and his party. I don’t think I’ve ever looked at anyone with such dripping contempt, and I’ve had the opportunity to stare down some pretty shitty people. They got the message, and looked away as they passed, and I satisfied myself with thinking that if he got that kind of look enough in the city, he would be forced to constantly examine himself. I know;  its a slim reed to hang on to.

So, yes, I know that no political change ever came without sacrifice. But I also know that once things are sacrificed, they never come back. How do we know what to risk and when? How do we put our ethics, or morality, our political beliefs into action with integrity? But most of all, what does a sane person do when faced with the unimaginable horrors that our country has regularly produced—highlighted now, in this  last near-decade of the post millennium, so that no one can claim ignorance any longer.

To save sanity, I’m interested in collecting other people’s opinions about this. Leave a comment below about what you would have done when confronted with the banality of evil at a gourmet ghetto restaurant.  Write a story, an analysis, a one word sentence. Anything will do. But please don’t go into some kind of maniacal murderous fantasy or anything like that, because I’ll probably delete it. Please put some thinking into the response; I think all of us can benefit from the conversation.

29 Responses “My Dinner with John Yoo” →
  1. I say well done!

    You already have done much to combat the evil that is John Yoo. You take part in public demands for his prosecution and stand guard daily for our civil rights through your writing here and at UT. A well-delivered glare, I would hope, is not at all uncommon for this criminal. I’ll bet he gets more than his share of them in the halls at Boalt as he passes his “colleagues”. He will be haunted by similar reminders of the unspeakable evils he enabled on a daily basis for the rest of his life. He has created his own hell and you had the good fortune of heating up one small ember.

    Violence would only be stooping to his level and playing directly into his hands. Taking part in the public demands for him to face justice is the best remedy of all, even if we are ultimately unsuccessful. We will take him down with the due process he denied his victims or we will not take him down at all.

  2. I’d say that you did about all that you could have done under the circumstances. You expressed your contempt, and it is highly unlikely that it was not clear to him just what it was that you were expressing your contempt about.

    I doubt that anything could have been gained if you had done or said something that might have put yourself in some way at risk.

    I’m glad that you at least had an opportunity to do him one better than just another upbraiding in an email or something. I sure do wonder who his students are these days and how anyone could stand being in the same classroom as him, much less being “educated” by him in that classroom.


  3. Jim Montague

    August 8, 2009

    Jim White and Kitt offer sound advice. But I’m afraid if it had been Rumsfeld, Cheney, or Rove, I’m not so sure that the limitations on polite conduct aren’t allowed to fall by the wayside.

  4. I’ve thought about this and my situation is different than your’s since I would probably not do well in jail due to some medical problems. IOW, I’ve tried thinking of what I could have done within the law and have come up with the following scenario…

    Politely go to his table and ask whether it would be possible to acquire his autograph since you are aware of his prominent place in history.

    If he won’t give you his autograph on a napkin, thank him for his time and leave.

    If he does, however, once you have the piece of paper back in your hand, thank him profusely and tell him that since the men’s room is temporarily out of toilet paper, he has just saved your evening…

    and then walk directly to the men’s room.

    Nothing illegal. Nothing disruptive to others.

    He gets the message and so do his dinner companions. Hopefully, his (and their) evening has been destroyed.

  5. That’s probably the best you could have done under the circumstances; were there something on the menu suggestive of torture like a creatively named cocktail (Organ Failure?) or perhaps a dessert of Swiss origin (Geneva Confection?) you could have had it sent to his table with a cryptic message. Drink throwing is only acceptable under certain circumstances, and this wasn’t one of them.
    I’ve only wasted good booze on one deserving face in my whole life, and that was when a particularly loathsome creature approached me in a dive bar, and actually tried to hit on me; under the circumstances I had no choice. Twenty years later, I still chuckle at the memory.


  6. Mike Sulzer

    August 8, 2009

    You did well, and you told the story well. Thank you for writing that up. I would not have recognized him; I do not even like to look a picture of that guy, and he is not on the news enough so that his face is unavoidable.


  7. cactusman

    August 9, 2009

    I don’t know what I would have done, or even if there is a “right” thing to do. And I share with you the wish to have been able to do something MORE having an “opportunity”.

    Of course, I have fantasies, first being today’s topic at UT: what if there were a FOX and Glenn Beck organizing protests in Berkley and following Yoo around and disrupting his every moment the way that the town halls are being disrupted.

    You have a personal life to live, though. You are not ONLY a person who cares so much about things that matter and tries to effect change. And I applaud your self-restraint, however much you may question it. To me, you’re no less a person for it.

    Though I don’t always agree with what you write, I am proud to be connected to you in whatever small way GG’s comment section brings us together.

    Thank you for trying so hard in all the ways you do.


  8. cactusman

    August 9, 2009

    “what does a sane person do when faced with the unimaginable horrors that our country has regularly produced—highlighted now, in this last near-decade of the post millennium, so that no one can claim ignorance any longer.”

    The best they can, under the circumstances.

    And you did.


  9. Gator90

    August 9, 2009

    To give Yoo anything remotely resembling what he deserves, you would have had to commit a crime. The state has a monopoly on the sorts of acts that could effect justice for what he has done, and the state, as we have long lamented, declines to exercise its rights in that regard.

    Perhaps I would have asked him how he sleeps at night, and told him that he is a disgrace to the legal profession, to the United States of America, and to humanity generally. And this would have needlessly strained my relationship with my wonderful in-laws, while failing, in all probability, to even marginally diminish Yoo’s enjoyment of his dinner.

  10. I’m with the others… a well-directed and laser-like glare can be quite effective, and still allow you to maintain your dignity (not to mention your girlfriend’s parents’ dignity) in a public place.

    Besides, the person who throws the drink is usually the one who comes off looking the worst… no matter what the provocation.

    Perhaps you’ll have many more such opportunities while in school.

    Have you considered taking one of his classes? If you do, I suggest only auditing it or taking it pass/fail.

  11. Late to the party, but I heartily agree with all the comments so far.

    About all I can add to it is something I tell my young punk-rock friends on the anarchist scene in this town: raising your own blood pressure is NOT a revolutionary act.

    Your nod in the direction of a public shaming is probably the best outcome I can imagine for Berkeley… and for Yoo, insofar as he may have a vestigial moral sense. It’d take a deft touch to organize such a thing without it crossing over the line into harassment that would be ultimately counterproductive: I’m imagining Berkeleyites giving him stink-eye or hissing every time he showed his face in public.

    Again, from my punk uncle lecture: use the rage to energize your response, don’t let the rage use YOU.

  12. A glare is better than nothing and probably more than I would have been able to muster given the situation – which was pretty complicated and I imagine difficult to properly think through.

    However, since you’ve given us the benefit of hindsight and the ability to think about it without all the emotions and conflicts of your environment, I will gladly offer my opinion!

    I think the best action would have been to go to his table and very calmly, rationally and matter-of-fact-ly state something like:

    “Hi. My name is ___________. I’m a citizen of this country that you have legally represented and I wanted to let you know that I am horrified and disgusted with your interpretations of the law relating to the torture of enemy combatants.”

    You don’t even have to wait for a response.

  13. Jamie…perhaps I’ll have a card printed out with that text, so that I can just hand it to him next time I see him…


  14. two_cents

    September 4, 2009

    Wonderful post.

    On whole, I agree with the others that you did the best possible. I think Yoo got the human-to-human message.

    Here’s another thought: Alice Waters has had an extraordinary impact on the food culture in Berkeley and the world, right up to Obama’s lawn. But this guest in her house does not promote good digestion. It would be a tremendous statement if she were to refuse to let him dine there. Maybe you could have a discussion with her about it?

    • Alice Waters has had an extraordinary impact on the food culture in Berkeley and the world, right up to Obama’s lawn. But this guest in her house does not promote good digestion. It would be a tremendous statement if she were to refuse to let him dine there. Maybe you could have a discussion with her about it?

      Hey, that’s a great idea. I’m actually going to try and do that.

  15. I had a really weird dream a couple years ago in which I had a similar encounter with Antonin Scalia. At a jazz club, of all places.
    The only experience I’ve had during waking hours that was anything like yours was at a St. Patrick’s Day parade in the Irish Channel section of New Orleans in the early ’90s, maybe ’91 or ’92. Riding in a convertible in this parade, smiling and throwing beads and shaking hands with the few passersby deranged enough to like him, was none other than David Duke. As his car approached, a wave of laughter, catcalls, and groans went through the crowd, with plenty of eye-rolling. Some people simply turned their backs on the parade outright. I went up to the car with two friends of mine, the three of us all smiles, to get a handshake from this celebrity who was visibly relieved to see us, another small clutch of friendly faces, approaching his car. One of them got hold of Duke’s hand, looked him straight in the eyes cheerful and grinning (as if he were about to gush, “I love your work!”) and said, “Hey, you’re a total a**hole, you know that?” Duke didn’t know what to do, just kind of laughing nervously, and the other guy added, “No, seriously, we hate everything you stand for, and so does everyone we know.” As his eyes darted from the first guy to the second to me, I just smiled a big smile, nodded at him and said, “White power!”
    My experience was different from yours, of course, in that everyone there knew who Duke was, and the general atmosphere was already somewhat adversarial to him. I think under the circumstances, your behavior towards Mr. Yoo was the best way to handle it. There’s no way he walked out of there unaware that you knew who he was and what he’d done. Did our experiences change David Duke’s or John Yoo’s thinking in any way? Obviously not. But I must admit it was fairly satisfying for my friends and me, and we got more than a few thank yous and complimentary beers from our fellow parade-goers.
    Of course the I.R.S. has, since then, made David Duke feel much worse than we were able to do on that St. Patrick’s Day.
    I’m curious to know whether you wrote to/talked with the owner of that restaurant, and if so, what came of it.

  16. Nice little place ya got here. It’s amazing, but everyone who I listen to and consider (at Glenn’s crib) have responded here to your story about Mr. Yoo.
    I suspect (from knowing a little from your past suffering) that you were quite capable to taking it to the next level, but it’s good to see a cool appraisal of the situation both short and long term. Unless you were to take him out would anything you did have a true *effect* as looks of scorn are nourishment for such soulless animals such as John. But you do (did) realize that’s a permanent career decision. You weighed your comfort/career/future against your honor/principle/courage and made a good call, in my humble opinion.
    But I’m walking in your moccasins. I don’t know what I would have done because I can be a contrary because I can. That’s the RainsInTheFace in me. I start fights, end discussion and face 20 to one odds in public opinion out of boredom, sometimes. I never was a believer in being polite to make my point, after all, Uncle Sam trained me to be *effective* and I was.
    But I admire Crazy Horse for his vision and his wisdom. It would have been a tactical victory, but the strategy would be self defeating- after all, if you want the King– why attack the cook? And when I say *attack*, I mean throwing the hammer of law at these vile excuses for human beings. Hence, my war lance will count coup on the worst of these which would be R. Cheney on down by eternal work on my part to see it happen. For my men lost in Iraq and Afghanistan, I can do NO less.


  17. doosra

    July 8, 2010

    I play squash at the San Francisco Bay Club. I see John Yoo and his wife several times a week. Unlike you, I have done nothing, not even a dirty look.

    I did not recognize him when he first started showing up a few months ago, and when someone told me who he was I felt sick to my stomach all day long. It even crossed my mind that I may never play squash at this club again. The squash community at this club has been my home for some ten years.

    Yoo and I are in the same skill level, so we have lots of common friends and we play the same people. He is very polite and sweet natured, unlike many other right wing blowhards. I just have not thought of the appropriate thing to do or say, and still continue sharing the same space and community. I cant say I am proud of myself. Just being honest. Maybe I will think of something.


  18. youmayberight

    July 25, 2010

    I’d like to change the situation to a hypothetical one. What if you were alone and walking across Antarctica, and coming toward you from the other direction was John Yoo? (For people whom I nod to as I pass on the street during nighttime hours, and who don’t acknoweldge my nod, I often think if it were Antarctica, I would simply walk past them without a word.)


    • omooex

      July 25, 2010

      Well, that’s one way of thinking about it. But what I was trying to get at here, is how do we function in a country where so many people have been involved these injustices and horrors? How many of our neighbors, or the people in the check out line next to us, were in Iraq and Afghanistan? And then, of those, how many did nothing more than repair Hummers and eat Subway sandwiches and play video games? Are they more or less culpable than Yoo? Given what we know about our justice system and the nature of our government—knowing that there will never be justice brought on these individuals, there will never be a reckoning—what is our responsibility? Should we contemplate violence? Should we take on other means to marginalize them? How much effort should we put into any of these against just one individual?

      Finally, who are we to judge them? We stood by as they created these wars and these torturing regimes, and as our neighbors went off to fight them, and sure we may have tried sort of to keep them from going…but did we do everything we could, given the enormity of what has occurred in this decade? Haven’t we, in the past few years, simply turned away, some of us exhausted, others of us never having broken a nail?

      In my mind, Yoo is no more evil than the guy I watched on the History Channel the other night bragging about being a sniper in Iraq, who will, in no circumstance, ever be brought to justice for his acts.

      • omooex, acknowledging our own culpability gives us all the more reason to act. Which doesn’t require violence. Holding torturers accountable is a righteous cause. Those in positions of power who don’t do their job, including the Dean of Berkeley Law, the Department of “Justice” and President Obama himself, are breaking the law.

  19. youmayberight

    July 26, 2010

    Sorry. I missed your intent. It seemed to me you were focusing on the John Yoos, not the banality of evil and the responsibility of large numbers — if not all — of us. But the “all of us are guilty” concept can lead to “none of us are more guilty than others.” That is dangerous and I believe more likely leads to this happening again.


    • omooex

      July 26, 2010

      Well, it’s meant to open up a broader conversation. I don’t agree with the “all of us are guilty concept” being dangerous and leading to this happening again. This has happened again and again. It seems the reason for that is is that we never hold ourselves accountable, simply continuing with our daily lives, hoping that someone will eventually be held accountable. I see nothing wrong with claiming the guilt for yourself, and working to make those most responsible take responsibility; and making sure that WE never allow it to happen again. That last part has been our greatest failure as citizens in invasion after invasion.


      • youmayberight

        July 26, 2010

        I totally agree with that last portion. In fact, since Aug. 1 (Sunday) is the eighth anniversary of the Yoo/Bybee torture memos, some of us here in Minneapolis will be fasting for 24 hours and vigiling on Aug. 2 at our local Federal Building from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. We encourage others to do something similar. Here’s a link to the event:!/event.php?eid=144988738849490&ref=ts

  20. manycolours

    September 5, 2010

    The most effective way to deal with malevolence of this degree is to follow the example of Martin Luther King, Jr. This is not a fight between you and Mr. Yoo; it is a fight between Love/Wisdom and self-centeredness/ignorance. I would like to have looked him in the eye and quietly said to him, ” I have a prophecy for you, Mr. Yoo. Someday you will deeply regret what you have stood for in this life, and you will abhor yourself. Then you will beg for the mercy which you did not give others.” Then, without waiting for a response, I would walk out.

  21. I have emailed John Yoo many times after seeing his name in the Philadelphia Inquirer as columnist. He never answered; surprise! But, I did feel that I had at least done something. I know it must have been really difficult not to throw wine in his face but it would have been a waste of money and he’s already helped this country to do this (along with GW and Cheney)….

  22. A very long time ago I bussed tables at Chez Panisse, and was once tempted to dump some dirty dishes into the lap of a dining elected official whose failings were orders of magnitude short of war crimes. I chickened out. When we discussed my fantasy back in the kitchen, one of the wait-persons claimed she had once poured ice-water into the lap of sleazy local politico, a creep but hardly a war criminal. I don’t know that there is a single good response to your dilemma, but even small acts to illuminate the evil done by our elected and unelected war criminals are worthwhile. The irony is that if Yoo had stolen public money or engaged in sexual misconduct, he’d be shunned by polite society, perhaps disbarred, and not teaching at Berkeley or dining out at fancy restaurants.

  23. I hope that if I ever come face to face with John Yoo that I punch him in the neck. The back, not his throat, and not really hard, just enough to make it hurt. My point would be to dare him to press charges. Remember, he’s got lots to lose as well. Much more than I have, and probably you too. If he did, I would have a platform to call him out on his evil. (I’d plead no contest, btw) If he didn’t, I could still get a little press out of it, maybe with a little luck mainstream attention.

    However, your girlfriend and her parents being there is a serious complication. If I loved the girl, and my assault could jeopardize our relationship (which is another judgment call), I think I wouldn’t do it. If I was already married, this issue goes away for me. And if I didn’t punch Yoo in the neck, I would hope that I would get up and actually say something to his face and make him walk around me. Doesn’t really matter what the words are, just to say something.

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