‘We Do Not Want America to Represent Torture’

By the Rethinking Schools editors

Illustrator: Associated Press photo / J. Scott Applewhite

In a June 25 meeting at the White House, high school student Mari Oye handed President Bush a letter signed by 50 high school Presidential Scholars. The letter criticized the administration’s detention policies and support for torture in the so-called war on terror. It read in part: “As members of the Presidential Scholars class of 2007, we have been told that we represent the best and brightest of our nation. Therefore, we believe we have a responsibility to voice our convictions. We do not want America to represent torture. We urge you to do all in your power to stop violations of the human rights of detainees, to cease illegal renditions and to apply the Geneva Convention to all detainees, including those designated enemy combatants.” President Bush read the letter and then told the students that the United States does not torture and that the country values human rights.

On July 3, Amy Goodman interviewed two of the Presidential Scholars — Mari Oye from Wellesley High School in Massachusetts, the student who handed the letter to President Bush, and Leah Anthony Libresco from Wheatley School in Mineaola, N.Y. — on Democracy Now!, a TV-radio show heard on over 500 stations in the U.S. and around the world. The following is excerpted from Goodman’s interview.

– the Rethinking Schools editors

President Bush makes remarks on the reauthorizaton of No Child Left
Behind at the White House, June 25, 2007. He is joined by students in
the Presidential Scholars Program.

Photo: Associated Press photo / J. Scott Applewhite

Amy Goodman: Explain the scene, Mari.

Mari Oye: Well, it actually took place outside on the White House lawn. We were facing the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, so that seemed like a good omen in some way. And we were all lined up. It was 95 degrees outside. The president walked in and… gave us a short speech saying that as we went on into our careers, it was important to treat others as we would like to be treated. And he told us that we would have to make choices we would be able to live with for the rest of our lives.

I had the letter in my hand, and Leah had another copy. And so, I said to the president, “Several of us made a choice, and we would like you to have this,” and handed him the letter. He put it in his pocket and said, “I’ll have it.” And they took the photo. After that, he took it out and said, “Should I read it now, or should I wait?” And I said, “It’s up to you, Mr. President.” And he did read the letter to himself right there. And then we were able to talk about it very briefly.

Goodman: And what did he say? How did he respond?

Oye: He read down the letter. He got to the part about torture. He looked up, and he said, “America doesn’t torture people.” And I said, “If you look specifically at the points we made” — because we were careful to outline specific things that are wrong with the administration’s policy. I said, “If you look specifically at what we said, we said, we ask you to cease illegal renditions,” and then I said, you know, “Please remove your signing statement to the McCain anti-torture bill.” And then I said that for me personally, the issue of detainee rights also had a lot of importance, because my grandparents had been interned during World War II for being Japanese-American.

At that point, he just said, “America doesn’t torture people” again. And another kid, actually, from Montana came forward and said, “Please make the U.S. a leader in human rights.” And that happened in the space of about a minute, but it was a very interesting minute with the President of the United States.

Goodman: Leah, you had the other letter in case Mari wasn’t able to do what she did. How did you plan this?

Leah Anthony Libresco: Well, what happened was, I know I came down thinking if I’m going to be in the room with the president, I’ve got to say something, because silence betokens consent, and there’s a lot going on I don’t want to consent to. What was really remarkable is that when I came down for the perk and I met people like Mari, everyone wanted to — a lot of the people wanted to say something to the president. People just kept saying, “Yes, we have to do something. We’re here.”

So when we started talking about the issues we wanted to address, the issue that really came out was torture, because it’s not a partisan issue, the issue of human rights, and we thought it was something everyone could get behind. And in a way it’s really a microcosm of some of the problems there have been in this administration, because we see here the secrecy that’s been going on with the way they’ve been hiding secret CIA prisons, the renditions to other countries, and also the disregard for the humanity of people we call our enemies that sort of has been the guiding principle in everything that’s been going wrong. So the more we talked about it, we wanted to write something, we wanted to say something. So we wrote a letter, and we finished it about two in the morning, the day before we met the president.

Goodman: How many of you wrote it?

Libresco: I think around six or so.

Goodman: And how many are in the Presidential Scholars Program?

Libresco: 141.

Oye: Right, there were 136 people there. But our whole planning process took place over the course of 12 hours before we met the president, some of which we were asleep for. But I guess it was sort of something we thought about for a long time before we went down to Washington, independently and privately. But, you know, not even everyone there knew there was a letter. We went around. We had had it on the bus. We had had it at breakfast that day. And we sort of approached people individually. And some people looked at it and had said, you know, they hadn’t been planning on doing something, but they looked at it and they said, “This is respectful. This is accurate. I can sign this.” And they signed it. So I think it was important — the manner in which it was done was also important.

Goodman: Mari, your mother also was a Presidential Scholar?

Oye: Yes, in 1968, when LBJ was president. And she felt at the time that she wanted to say something about the Vietnam War, but she had an English teacher back at the school she came from who she didn’t want to offend. And the English teacher had stressed that it was important, you know, to stay quiet when you were in the presence of the president. And I’ve had teachers that have stressed the opposite throughout my high school career, and so I thought of them, and I thought of my mother, and I thought of what I would be comfortable with in 40 years. And I think we did the right thing while we were there.

Goodman: What did your mother say?

Oye: Well, when she found out, she had been touring Washington. Our parents weren’t with us at the time we went to the White House. And she was actually in the Holocaust Museum in the last room, when I called her to say that we had given the letter. She didn’t know there was a letter beforehand, when I called her to tell her what had happened. And she said that she walked out into the bright sunlight with tears streaming down her face, but since a lot of people walk out of the Holocaust Museum that way, you know, no one noticed anything out of the ordinary.

The full transcript can be found at www.democracynow.org.