Roundtable: Padilla Indicted, Brits Ban Blackface

Wednesday's topics: "Enemy combatant" Jose Padilla is indicted, and the British Opera bans blackface. Guests: George Curry, editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service; Laura Washington, Chicago Sun-Times columnist; and Joe Davidson, an editor at The Washington Post.

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ED GORDON, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

On today's Roundtable, rancor rising in Washington and blackface banned at a British opera. Joining us from Chicago is Laura Washington, Chicago Sun-Times columnist; and from our member station WUCF in Orlando, Florida, George Curry, editor in chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service; and from our headquarters in Washington DC, Joe Davidson. He's an editor at The Washington Post.

All right, folks, appreciate you joining us today. Let's get into what has been playing itself out now for three years now. The Bush administration has finally charged Jose--and it depends on what side of the street you live--Padilla (pronounced pa-dee-la) or Padilla (pronounced pa-dee-ya), a US citizen, we should note, held without charges for more than three years on suspicion of plotting a dirty bomb to attack this country. Now he has, instead, been charged with conspiracy to murder, maim and kidnap. He will be added to a pre-existing indictment against four others.

Laura Washington, does this come as a surprise to you?

Ms. LAURA WASHINGTON (Columnist, Chicago Sun-Times): No, it doesn't. A little bit too late and too--very too late, I think. I think you make a really important point when you made the point, Ed, about the pronunciation of his name. What do we know about Jose Padilla? We know very, very little. He was born in Brooklyn, grew up most of his young life in Chicago, was involved in gang crime, in and out of the juvenile justice system, converted to Islam and went overseas. And that's all we really know for sure for the record, and I think that's the point here. We need to get the story out. We need to find--he's been detained for over three years. Some people say he's a threat to the modern world. He's a ticking time bomb. Sandra Day O'Connor said--made--raised that question once. We don't know what this man has really done. And the problem with holding all these hundreds of folks as we have without charging them, without right to legal counsel, is that we can never really get to the bottom of whether or not these folks have really been a threat to us. We're making a case--or at least our government's making a case that we have to hold these folks, we have to detain them in order to protect society. We really don't know if that's true.

GORDON: Hey, Joe, how much of this smacks of critics who will say those three dirty words--or the letters to the Bush administration, WMDs, the fact that we have heard about charging this man for plotting a dirty bomb, and then all of the sudden that goes away and you stick another charge to him?

Mr. JOE DAVIDSON (The Washington Post): Well, I think it's interesting that this development about deciding to--the Bush administration's decision to no longer incarcerate him incognito as an enemy combatant and instead hold him as a--you know, as someone facing criminal charges comes at the same time that there is renewed debate about the whole issues of--whole issue of weapons of mass destruction, which, of course, were not found in Iraq. It also happens that the dirty bomb that John Ashcroft when he was the attorney general accused Mr. Padilla of having or planning to explode in the United States is not even a part of the indictment now. So I guess certainly critics of the administration could say just as there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, there is now no dirty bomb.

I think, though, clearly that the larger question, and perhaps the most serious one for the lawyers representing Mr. Padilla and for civil rights attorneys is this whole issue of incarcerating someone, particularly an American citizen who was arrested on American soil, indefinitely without charge. The government has--is doing what it's doing, at least according to its critics, in order to avoid--at least in part, to avoid a Supreme Court challenge to that power. But that case might still be heard by the high court.

GORDON: Yeah, George, Joe beats me to my next point, and that is the whole idea that has really raised the ire of so many and that is what is due to the American citizen and that is, you know, the right to due process, speedy trial, etc.

Mr. GEORGE CURRY (National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service): That's precisely correct because the trial is not going till probably next September. So we're talking about somebody held for four years on charges that end up not being charges. I mean, if you're a US citizen--I mean, if he's guilty then let's take him to trial and prosecute him and go let him be in the can. If he's not, you don't just send him around and put him around and say, `Oh, by the way,' four years later, `Oh, forget those charges. We going to totally have some new ones.' And that's exactly what happened. None of the new indictment has anything that encompasses the earlier allegations, and any American citizen should worry about that.

Ms. WASHINGTON: And some of those earlier allegations include not just the dirty bomb, but also the fact that he was an acquaintance of Khalid Sheik al-Mohammed, who was--who has been claimed to be the mastermind of September 11th, that he was trained in an al-Qaeda training camp and that he was part of this big master plan to attack the United States. None of that stuff is going to come up in the trial. So it does, again, raise a question: Can the federal government be allowed to make these claims, you know, based in many cases on hearsay and them back off of them when they finally bring an indictment?

GORDON: All right, let's...

Mr. CURRY: Laura, that's the problem people have with this whole idea of enemy combatants, particularly when you're talking about a US citizen...

Ms. WASHINGTON: Sure.

Mr. CURRY: ...and I do make a distinction between US citizen and those who are not. When you're talking about US citizens, they are entitled to speedy trial and they should be afforded that.

GORDON: All right, let's move our attention to rancor--ha, ha--in Washington, if you can believe it. This happened on the floor of the House yesterday. This is Ohio Republican Congresswoman Jean Schmidt. Let's take a listen.

(Soundbite of House session)

Representative JEAN SCHMIDT (Republican, Ohio): A few minutes ago I received a call from Colonel Danny Bubp, Ohio representative from the 88th District in the House of Representatives. He asked me to send Congress a message, `Stay the course.' He also asked me to send Congressman Murtha a message that `Cowards cut and run. Marines never do.' Danny and the rest of America and the world want...

GORDON: All right. Let's talk a little bit about that. I think I inadvertently said that these comments were made yesterday but here's the point, Joe Davidson. You and I were talking last week when I was in Washington about the idea that the rancor we are seeing--and we had President Carter on with us yesterday and we heard comments recently from Bill Clinton, who both have suggested that they have not seen it this bad in their many, many years of politics. This is just part and parcel of what many see as the ridiculous notion of bipartisan fighting when people are dying every day.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, I think that--I think a lot of people on both sides of the aisle are beginning to get frustrated and disgusted with kind of the--some of these personal attacks, not just partisan, but clearly personal attacks, and I think that the comments by Congresswoman Schmidt--and they were actually on Friday night--had come to exemplify that for a lot of people. I mean, it used to be that people--that freshmen and women in Congress were kind of seen but not heard, and she's only been in Congress a little more than a hundred days. And so I think that calling a decorated Vietnam veteran, basically a man who was considered a hawk on the Democratic side, a coward or suggesting that he might be, I think, that really kind of alerted people to just how low the debate can get in terms of--in personal terms, and I think that it has upset people across the political spectrum even to the point where the president came out over the weekend and the vice president to suggest--they came out to say that Murtha is a patriotic member of Congress, and they were attempting to raise the level of debate even while continuing to harshly criticize Democrats in this debate.

Mr. CURRY: I don't know how you raise the level of debate...

GORDON: George Curry, you did see--you did see the White House send many speakers out on Monday to try to clear up their position, but it's always after the fact. It's always after the statements are made.

Mr. CURRY: You can't talk about raising the level of debate when you're a part of the problem. I mean, these attacks have been there on the critics if you disagree. Now what they're doing is becoming more clever with it. I know that Cheney recently was saying, well, of course, this is fair debate but you're going beyond that. Well, basically, you know, you can say what you want to. Murtha was right when he said that people are attacking him. He mentioned the vice president, who got five deferments, and you couldn't find the president when he was in the National Guard part of the time. So the person who goes out and put his life on the line, who's been very supportive of this war, reaches a point where he says, `I think it's time to bring the troops home,' and you're probably talking about a six-month period, and he gets attacked as being a coward by people who never served themselves. And the whole cabal there who basically--who've been criticizing him, most of them have not served; chicken hawks, that's what they've been called. And yet when somebody puts his life on the line and says honestly from his heart, `I think it's time to bring the troops home,' he gets attacked as a coward. And it is low. It is extremely low.

Ms. WASHINGTON: We have to be able to have a civil debate, and when it degenerates to this--these kind of personal attacks, this sort of he-said-she-said, you've got to--as you point out, Ed, you've got to realize that this has an impact on lives. It has an impact of the people dying overseas. This has an effect on the troops. It's very demoralizing. My brother's in the Army and he's been to both Iraq and Afghanistan, and he tells me, and I've heard from other folks, that, you know, this--folks, they can understand that we have a difference of opinion over here. But when we devolve into this kind of rancor, it basically says to the troops, you know, we don't care about you. This is all about partisan politics. And I think that we should be able to be--to civilly disagree.

GORDON: All right.

Mr. CURRY: I think both sides do say, though, and, Laura, I think they've been careful even when they've been doing all this, that they support the troops. They disagree with the policy.

Ms. WASHINGTON: But nobody believes that. They don't have any credibility on that when it looks like it's nothing but partisan politics.

Mr. DAVIDSON: But, you know, both sides argue that supporting the troops can be argued both ways. You can support the troops by bringing them home. The conservatives argue that to support the troops means you have to support the policy of war in Iraq, which obviously people who don't agree with that policy, they disagree with that interpretation of supporting the troops.

GORDON: But I mean, let's be honest. The idea that we hear supporting the troops is almost like a musician who wins, you know, a Grammy and goes up and thanks God first, then his mama. I mean, that has to be said almost and, you know, it's almost rhetoric that spills itself out before any other words are put forth. I'm not saying it's not heartfelt, but it is obviously the politically expedient thing to say.

Ms. WASHINGTON: It's become nothing but a cliche and that's the way it sounds overseas.

GORDON: All right, let's turn our attention overseas, since you mention that, Laura, to the Royal Opera House, who is now saying that they are going to eliminate the idea of using blackface. This comes on the heels of a novelist who was at a dress rehearsal for an opera being put on there where one of the characters was to have been in blackface. He criticized the practice in The Independent newspaper and, not long after that, the Royal Opera House announced that they would no longer use blackface. Surprised here at all, George Curry, the right thing to do, or can you live with some historical context here?

Mr. CURRY: I can live with it being racially insensitive, overdue, stupid and mindless. I mean, why are they just now catching up with this? This is unbelievable that we're talking about the year 2005 and we're still talking about putting on blackface. It's long overdue. I'm glad they did it, but I wonder what took them so long.

Ms. WASHINGTON: Well, you know...

GORDON: We should note that--it's interesting, Laura--and then pick up your point--in some of the material that I was reading they talked about a show, "The Black and White Minstrel Show," that was very popular. It was a musical variety show featuring blackface actors, which was on in Britain until 1978. Go ahead, pick up your point.

Ms. WASHINGTON: That's entertainment. Yes, as George says, they are incredibly slow, but the thing that interested me was the argument that you always hear that, you know, well, we just can't find good black folks. What they're saying is--the spokesperson for the Royal Opera House said that it's--you know, operas that call for black characters are incredibly rare, and there's just not an opportunity to present real live black people in opera. Well, that's--that is the crux of the problem. So many of these elite art forms do not have any connection to the reality that folks live day to day. They don't have--they don't reach out to newer audiences. They don't develop--new operas are written every day, but there's no effort to develop operas that have diversity, that have--that reflect the diversity of life. And then they wonder why people of color don't go to the opera, don't go to the symphony, don't go to the art museums...

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, you know, that...

Ms. WASHINGTON: ...because there's nothing there for them.

Mr. DAVIDSON: That might be true but it's also true that black actors and black actresses can play in any form, can play in any of these plays that have already been written. And I think what this whole issue gets to is: Can you have a black person playing a white person and can you have a white person playing a black person? The fact of the matter is, in many of these, you know, artistic endeavors, it doesn't necessarily--the roles aren't necessarily written for white or black. Most of them are always played by white people because they're written by white people. They're produced by white people. They're staged by white people. But if you look at them, there's not necessarily a racial component to the character itself. So black people really could play these roles even if they aren't--even if the script doesn't call for a black person.

GORDON: Well, we should note this particular role did call for a black character. It is a black characterization to this particular role.

Mr. DAVIDSON: And there are plenty of black people to fill that. You know, I simply don't buy the argument that we cannot find black actors or black actresses. There are plenty even in London.

GORDON: George, let me ask you as relates to this issue, it becomes, to some degree, a reversal of the fight here and that is the imagery that we are seeing once again, particularly for the older generation, to fight what they call the black minstrel shows here, some of the images that we've seen from the rappers, the dirty South, etc., etc., that become, for a certain generation, an embarrassment. Is this one of those things that can be juxtaposed and say, `Well, if you're going to expect it here, you need to clean up your own act'?

Mr. CURRY: I think you need to look at all the images and certainly the rappers, many of them, certainly merit the criticism. But let's not forget these images are something we exported, this country did. And that's why we're having the same problem with Mexico. We're talking about the cartoons there. We're talking about the stamps. This whole image just started right here in this country. So let's not look at Britain all of a sudden and say, `Oh, we're aghast by it,' even though we're aghast is it took them this long. But let's not forget this is born in the USA.

GORDON: Laura?

Ms. WASHINGTON: Well, you know, as Joe mentioned, even in London--London is--you know, is in many ways our historical partner. And many of the images in London and overseas are, as George said, exported. Folks overseas see American media, and that American media is very stereotypical, whether it be rappers or whether it be comedians making dirty jokes. And so these are the images that they see. These are the--this is the story that is told about us broadly, so no wonder these images are so accepted overseas.

GORDON: All right, George, any final thoughts?

Mr. CURRY: Well, I was just thinking about opera and black people and I was thinking about "Porgy and Bess," which was just recently at the Kennedy Center here, and how odd it would be to see white people playing Porgy and Bess--the--in blackface or in their natural skin color. I guess my basic big point is that, one, this blackface operation is insulting and demeaning not only to black people but to white people as well; and, two, there are plenty of black people to fulfill these roles.

GORDON: All right, well, I'm going to stick with the operatic genius of R. Kelly and watch "In the Closet" over the holiday.

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