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“We Do Not Want America to Represent Torture”: High School Presidential Scholars Deliver Bush a Message on Human Rights

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Last week President Bush got a personal rebuke from an unexpected source. In a meeting with this year’s high school Presidential Scholars, he was handed a letter signed by 50 of the students criticizing the White House’s detention policies and support for torture in the so-called war on terror. We speak with two of the students. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: For years, the Bush administration has come under heavy criticism from human rights groups, legal scholars, members of Congress, for its detention policies and support for torture in the so-called war on terror. But last week, President Bush got a rebuke from an unexpected source.

Last Monday, the President was meeting with this year’s Presidential Scholars. They’re high school students. One of them handed him a letter signed by 50 of the students. It read, “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.” That’s the what the letter said.

The White House said President Bush had not expected the letter, but read it, then told the students the United States does not torture and that the country values human rights. The seniors had been invited to the East Room as members of the Presidential Scholars Program, one of the nation’s highest honors for graduating high school students.

Two of the Presidential Scholars who signed the letter to President Bush join us today in our firehouse studio. Leah Anthony Libresco is a graduate of the Wheatley School in Mineola, New York, and Mari Oye graduated from Wellesley High School in Massachusetts. She personally handed Bush the letter last week. Welcome both to Democracy Now!

MARI OYE: Thank you.

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 said that — 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.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did he say? How did he respond?

MARI 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. He said — so 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.

AMY 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 2:00 in the morning, the day before we met the president.

AMY GOODMAN: How many of you wrote it?

LEAH ANTHONY LIBRESCO: I think around six or so.

AMY GOODMAN: And how many are in the Presidential Scholars Program?

LEAH ANTHONY LIBRESCO: A hundred and forty-one.

MARI 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.

AMY GOODMAN: So more than a third of the students signed.


LEAH ANTHONY LIBRESCO: I was really blown away. I thought we — I was thinking, you know, if we get a tenth or so, that’s good, that sends a statement. Then I checked with Mari at lunch. I’m like, “So how are we doing?” She goes, “Well, we’re two signatures shy of 50.” I’m like “Wow!”

AMY GOODMAN: Mari, your mother also was a Presidential Scholar?

MARI 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.

AMY GOODMAN: What did your mother say?

MARI 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.

AMY GOODMAN: Your grandfather was a poet in the detention camps?

MARI OYE: Right. He was born in California, but he had grown up in Japan, and he spent some of his time in camp writing senryu, a type of Japanese poetry. It was sort of something to do, obviously, and it sort of brought him some solace when he was there.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you have any of his poems?

MARI OYE: I do. They published a short book of them, and I [inaudible] more of them, too.

AMY GOODMAN: Leah, just before you went on the air, you were telling me your name Leah Anthony Libresco. “Anthony” for…?

LEAH ANTHONY LIBRESCO: Anthony is for Susan B. Anthony. My parents are both historians and feminists, so I actually am named after the great women’s rights leader, and I have my mom’s last name instead of my dad’s.

AMY GOODMAN: You head to China in a week?

LEAH ANTHONY LIBRESCO: Yes. I’m really excited. It was an opportunity for some of the Presidential Scholars. And I just can’t wait. I mean, the world is shrinking every day with the Internet, but it’s so exciting to get to see things for myself and learn more.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Mari, in October we interviewed Sarah Chayes, the former NPR correspondent who covered the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, leaving journalism in 2002 to run an aid organization in Kandahar called Afghans for Civil Society. She now runs a collective called Argon that sells soap and handcrafted products made in Afghanistan that I know you’re involved with now. This is Sarah Chayes, what she had to say about the collective.

SARAH CHAYES: It’s a way of trying to combat opium growing. In other words, the best way to make it possible for people not to plant poppy is for them to be able to make money growing other things.

AMY GOODMAN: And your choice to do this?

SARAH CHAYES: It’s about grassroots. It’s about building democracy on whatever level you can in a cooperative, where there are good relations with producers, where there’s a collective decision-making process. And where we can honor a lot of the traditional licit crops that Kandahar has been known for for millennia seems like a worthwhile thing to be involved in.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Sarah Chayes. Mari Oye, how are you involved?

MARI OYE: For a lot of the time that that project was getting going, all of the soap came through my basement. We had a group in my high school —

AMY GOODMAN: The soap that came through your basement?

MARI OYE: Oh, yeah. The boxes would show up. They were shipped from Kandahar. And we would go down and pick them up, open them up, find these like sort of jewel-like soap packed in Afghan newspapers with things written on them we couldn’t read, and then work on the packaging. We did marketing.

I think that sort of helped me coming into this, because I had the experience working with other people and sort of getting everyone together, even if we hadn’t known each other ahead of time. And, of course, it’s also been amazing working with Sarah. I knew her family a little bit before the project started up. But I talked to her, and I had said, “If there’s anything that I can do to help this project, you tell me.” And there turned out to be more I could do than I expected. So it was a wonderful thing to work on during high school.

AMY GOODMAN: Where do you head to college?

MARI OYE: I’m going to Yale next year.

AMY GOODMAN: And Leah, as well.


AMY GOODMAN: And what are both your plans in college? What are you going to study?

LEAH ANTHONY LIBRESCO: Well, actually, one thing I’m really excited about specifically at Yale — I don’t know what I’m going to major in, but Yale has the only microfinance program of all of the colleges in the U.S., I believe. The same kind of ideas that motivate the Grameen Bank, they’re putting to work in New Haven, and it’s something I’d sure like to get involved in.


MARI OYE: I’m undecided officially, but I’m interested in English and international relations.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you think this meeting with the president will mean for you in your life?

MARI OYE: I don’t know. I hope it means something to him. I don’t know whether it will or not, but I hope he’ll in some way think about what we said to him. For me, I don’t think I’ve changed, beforehand or afterward, but it’s definitely something I will think back on and remember about as vividly as anything in my life so far.

LEAH ANTHONY LIBRESCO: I’ve got to say, for me, that the most remarkable moment wasn’t meeting the president and handing over the letter. It was everything that had gone before that, the talking about it, the realizing that across the country there are all these people who are so invested in what’s going on and really are committed to making a difference and that once you give people data, they’re likely to stand up and join you.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us, Leah Anthony Libresco and Mari Oye, both Presidential Scholars who gave the president a letter that said that the U.S. government should not be involved in torturing people.

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