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.