An Interview with Ian Almond on Attorney General Sam Olens
When the most senior law enforcement officer and legal advisor for the state of Georgia accuses a group of Georgia State University students of being pawns for international terrorists, every liberty loving Georgian should pay close attention. On May 24th, Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens stated that he “absolutely” believed that the Progressive Student Alliance leaders who had made an opens records request for information about the Georgia International Law Enforcement Program were acting for unnamed others. Pressed by Channel 2 Action News anchor John Bachman to specify who or what was pulling the strings behind the scenes, Olens stated that he was “not going to speculate.” Responding to that extraordinarily serious yet peculiarly vague and unsupported accusation, the targets of his “terrorism baiting” responded with a press conference on May 27th to deny and denounce the accusation. The contrast between their forthrightness and the words of the Attorney General is impossible to miss. Among the most articulate of the voices at that press conference was that of Dr. Ian Almond, Professor of English Literature at Georgia State. I interviewed Professor Almond on June 6th. His responses shed light on what is at stake in this controversy.
Hickman: Ian, where are you from? Where did you go to school?
Almond: I’m from the north of England. Basically, north of Liverpool, Manchester. So, British. I was an undergraduate at Warwick University and then did my Ph.D. at Edinburgh University. But, I did a year as an exchange student at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana.
Hickman: You’ve had some time to think about the accusation made by Attorney General Olens. The first question I ask is whether there is any truth to the accusation?
Almond: Absolutely not. It’s just absolutely groundless.
Hickman: What effects do you think the accusation might have on free speech and academic freedom in Georgia?
Almond: I think in itself it’s sort of inconsequential. However, it is worrying that it contributes to a culture in which any attempt to question power is increasingly politicized and vilified as subversive. It’s profoundly undemocratic in that sense.
Hickman: Anything else?
Almond: It prevents us looking seriously at how our own police run and enforce the rules of our society. On the contrary, it goes in the opposite direction, it legitimizes and endorses any aberrations or poor standards in police behavior, rather than correcting or improving them.
Hickman: Making accusations of treasonous connections seems like old-fashioned McCarthyism. Senator Joseph McCarthy was motivated to seek publicity because he was extremely ambitious, willing to take risks and careless of the damage that he did. You just said you don’t know how…how or why the Attorney General did what he did?
Almond: What my spin on it is is that he perceives there’s a ready culture of political paranoia out there. The news here moves from threat to threat. Whether it’s, you know, what you don’t know about your lawnmower which may kill you, to, you know, terrorism. The idea that this was just a sort of very clumsy attempt to grab onto that fear of terrorism and to draw attention to whatever real political opposition he thinks is growing…I mean, I can’t seriously believe that he thought the idea of a scare tactic such as this would be effective because it’s so ridiculous. Unless, he’s not thinking of us. Or unless he’s thinking of like the forty percent of Georgia that would readily, credibly believe what he said. In which case I suppose he’s consolidating some kind of base. There is that possibility, but…I can imagine, maybe any coverage is good coverage. So, it shows him as a, as a visible and powerful defender of American-ness, and America’s valuable ties to Israel against subversive, mischievous, misguided, American students.
Hickman: Posturing for public opinion?
Almond: Yes, I mean, there is that possibility.
Hickman: What is the GILEE Program and why haven’t we heard more about it before this?
Almond: I mean, the GILEE Program is basically an exchange set up between the Atlanta Police Force and the Israeli Police Force to train one another. A number of personnel are being exchanged. And it’s, it’s…why haven’t we been told more about it? It could be that they don’t feel it was necessary to. I mean, doesn’t it make sense that they feel what they are doing is completely novel? In which case, I can understand that. You know that often you’re doing something and then someone comes along and says why haven’t you disclosed this?
Hickman: It seems so uncontroversial to them that you think that maybe…
Almond: Right. But given the rejection or the reluctance to comply with our requests for further information, that obviously gives a different dimension to it. Maybe there’s a pride thing. The idea that because the very fact that the request has been made throws some kind of ethical doubt on the nature of the exercise. There may be that sense of a grievance.
Hickman: I was impressed by your, your call for the resignation of the Attorney General of Georgia. And I think you suggested he either seek medication or was it a course of meditation?
Hickman: Which one?
Almond: It was medication, there was no meditation. It was tongue-in-cheek, slightly.
Almond: I do think that it’s very irresponsible of someone as powerful as Mr. Olens to bandy around accusations like that. I think it’s irresponsible even from a completely nonpolitical point of view. If there really is, as we are constantly told, a level of security alert in this country, then it is extremely dangerous and counterproductive to cry wolf. There should be some sort of reproof for Mr. Olens for using the “T” word, if you like, to a 22-year old student. I mean, there are much, much, more serious problems to be dealt with and it’s a distraction and consumption of valuable energy which could be spent more productively elsewhere.
Hickman: If he is just posturing for public opinion though…
Almond: And that makes it even twice as bad because then he’s behaving extremely irresponsibly for his own private political ambitions. Which is, of course, isn’t as massively different from a number of leading politicians. But that he’s the state attorney. There is this jurisprudential aspect to his responsibility which I find quite surprising. I was wondering whether a judge in the U.K. could get away with replying to a request for information with an allegation of manipulation by terrorists.
Hickman: Talk a little about the reasons for concern about the Israeli police.
Almond: The Israeli police have a long history of human rights abuses. As late as last week the Israeli NGO called Public Committee Against Torture in Israel reported that an Israeli policeman slapped a human rights lawyer in the face. And, that was just last week. In July 2008 Amnesty International reported to the United Nations violations not just of the Israeli Police but also the Israeli Border Police and, of course, the Israeli military of systematic torture, systematic abuse, random imprisonment and random arrests.
Hickman: Is the concern that that attitude will contaminate Atlanta Police?
Almond: It depends on your view of the Atlanta Police. I mean, depending on what you think of your Atlanta Police, the question is who is going to teach what to whom?
Hickman: So there could be cross contamination? If that’s true, where’s the concern?
Almond: It prevents looking seriously at how our own police govern our state. On the contrary, it goes in the opposite direction, it legitimizes. And, third, it endorses.
Darla M. Fox assisted in the production of this article.
Editor’s Note: Dr. Almond’s background and photo via the British Council web site