Notes from a Balinese Cockfight, Officer

Notes from a Balinese Cockfight, Officer
Cliopatria – History News Network
Chris Bray

Congratulations — you’ve been deputized. You might want to buy some handcuffs.

In a May 23 op-ed piece at the Boston Globe, guest columnist Juliette Kayyem argued that Boston College should just shut up already and hand the federal government their tapes and notes from interviews with members of the Irish Republican Army. Researchers from the college made poorly considered promises of confidentiality that they cannot keep, and that’s that. “Little will be gained by a drawn-out fight in court. BC should hand over the specific tapes requested and, in the future, require greater oversight and transparency on research projects implicating criminal conduct.”

Beats me what any of that means, because Kayyem doesn’t bother to say. Who should provide this greater oversight, and in what form? When does a project implicate criminal conduct, and where do researchers locate the threshold for that determination? If you’re interviewing former Black Panthers, should you just stop right now, or should you wait for them to say something incriminating before you rip the tape out of the machine and run to fetch the authorities?

But anyway, Kayyem writes, none of this talk is worth the candle: “Terrorist organizations kill innocent victims; it’s what defines them. Replace IRA with Hamas and we wouldn’t be having this theoretical debate.”

Replace the IRA with Hamas, and the debate still isn’t “theoretical.” Government can conduct its own investigations. Scholars aren’t cops, and aren’t adjuncts to law enforcement agencies. Manning Marable spent years trying to figure out who killed Malcolm X. Should the FBI have grabbed his notes and tapes a few years ago, as a substitute for their own investigation? Robert Churchill, a history professor at the University of Hartford, studies both the early American militia and contemporary militia groups. Clearly, a federal grand jury should start going through his scholarship. Name your own examples — I can think of a dozen of the top of my head. In the meantime, feel free to study any group that has never angered or opposed any government anywhere. Oral history of a Scottish knitting club that firmly supports the police? You are conditionally cleared to begin. But be careful.

By the way, the Globe doesn’t mention Juliette Kayyem’s background and credentials at the bottom of the essay that casually argues for Boston College to stop resisting the government and start condemning IRA interviewees to death (not that she mentions that last part). But they’ve offered that information at the end of some of her other columns: “Juliette Kayyem, a guest columnist, is former homeland security adviser for Massachusetts and most recently served as assistant secretary at the US Department of Homeland Security.

In a thoughtful op-ed piece, a recent senior official of the Department of Homeland Security encourages academic researchers to immediately hand over to the federal government a set of notes and tapes that will provide evidence of criminal activity. Maybe we can get some of those cool junior federal agent badges as a trade-off.

And maybe oral history subjects should be Mirandized.