Columbia prof. discusses war on terror paranoia


Speaking to over 50 students and guests of Harvard Law School who had assembled for the first Saturday School Program of the academic year, Professor Patricia Williams of Columbia Law School talked about the war on terror and how race is being perceived after September 11. Her speech, which was partly a compilation of previous articles she wrote for The Nation, focused on fear and how it can lead to paranoia and a breakdown of protective barriers against injustice.

Williams urged her audience to reject the argument that terrorist suspects should not be given the best defense because, as some have argued, they will end up in Florida playing golf with O.J. Simpson. A good defense, she contended, is a way to combat abuses by the prosecution.

“Part of what I am afraid of in terms of how the war on terror is being perceived, or received, on a domestic level is it is very much joined with constructions and stereotypes we have about race,” Williams said. “If Eskimos have a hundred words for snow,” Williams said, “we have let bloom a thousand words for fear.”

Fear, Williams argued, can lead one to suspect someone who looks different or who is discussing a dubious subject. She referred to the brief detention of three men in Florida last month after a woman told authorities the men were making alarming comments, including statements about bringing something down. In fact, the men were talking about bringing a car down to Florida.

Williams said people’s uncertainty has led to new forms of fear that could ultimately provoke our worst totalitarian tendencies. “People know nothing, so they suspect everything,” she said. “Torture and extracted confessions are investments in the right to be all knowing. That certitude is the essence of totalitarianism.”

Following her speech, Williams fielded a question from Professor Charles Ogletree on the recent controversy surrounding allowing military recruiters on campus. Williams applauded Lambda’s efforts to sign up for JAG recruiting slots, adding that it was unfair that those who oppose discrimination can be viewed as anti-government or unpatriotic. “We have to bear in mind that the civil rights of disability, sexual orientation and women rest on the same foundation,” Williams said.

In an interview with The RECORD, Williams encouraged students to keep an optimistic perspective and remain critical thinkers. “I think people need to keep a sense of proportion,” she said. “This is not the worst of times.”

Patricia Williams received her law degree from HLS in 1975. She holds honorary degrees from Northeastern University and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She served as visiting professor of women’s studies at Harvard, visiting professor of law at Stanford, and visiting scholar at Duke. Her books include The Alchemy of Race and Rights; The Rooster’s Egg; and Seeing A ColorBlind Future: The Paradox of Race.

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