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Alan Dershowtiz, Lawyer, Activist, Chutzpahnik

Alan Dershowitz — a Harvard law professor, celebrated civil rights activist, and author of nearly 30 best-selling books on the law and politics — admits that the artifacts that fill his home and office form something of a hodge podge: a sofa made from a classic Cadillac car, the signed letter by Thomas Jefferson on the wall, the baseball memorabilia and Yiddish postcards, rare books and antiquities. The eclectic collection is a little like Dershowitz himself, who recalls that even during his childhood in Brooklyn, New York, he was driven by diverse interests.

"I could never decide what I wanted to be when I grew up. I couldn't decide whether I wanted to be a practicing lawyer or a professor or a writer, or a lecturer or pubic intellectual, a person who is on TV. So I decided to be all of them!"

Alan Dershowitz was the first person in his working class Jewish family to go to college and the first to enter a profession. He graduated first in his class at Yale Law School and went on to clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court. But he first achieved national fame in 1967, when at the age of 28, he became the youngest person ever to be given a full professorship at Harvard University.

In his practice of law, Dershowitz quickly established a reputation as a highly effective attorney. He successfully defended high-profile clients such as O.J. Simpson, heiress-turned-bank robber Patty Hearst, boxer Mike Tyson, financier Michael Milken and oil mogul Claus von Bulow — whose trial on charges he'd murdered his wife became the subject of Dershowitz's best-selling book, Reversal of Fortune, which in turn was later made into an Academy Award-winning film.

But Dershowitz says he has always been most passionate about advocating for voiceless individuals he believes have been treated unjustly by society or the legal system. He says one of his earliest concerns as a young lawyer was the use of involuntary psychiatric commitment to lock up the mentally ill.

"At that time," Dershowitz says, "a million Americans were locked up in institutions against their will. I've fought against disparate sentencing policies and the use of preventive detention."

At the root, Dershowitz is committed to bring the unacknowledged up to the surface. He wants to provoke discussion about things we are not discussing.

The author of Chutzpah, a best-selling memoir whose title is a Yiddish word meaning bold and outspoken, says this quality has made him unpopular in some circles. "Because a lot of people say 'Better keep it in the closet.' I don't believe in closets. I don't like these little closed places where you hide things away. I like everything in complete clear and open view. In a democracy, you can't change something unless you know about it."

Dershowitz has written extensively about how to balance civil liberties against the government's need to protect the nation from terrorism and other threats. He says he is deeply concerned about allegations of the secret use of torture by the Bush Administration against detained terrorism suspects.

Dershowitz says he is personally against torture. But he acknowledges that all presidents would probably use it in "ticking bomb" scenarios, where innocent lives were in immediate peril. But he calls state secrecy about possible government uses of torture "anti-democratic."

"And so I wrote a series of articles that said 'Hey, if the President is going to use it, we want to know about it." Dershowitz says that means torture warrants — official approvals for torture — should be required from the President and the federal courts.

Critics of this idea say that for the U.S. to openly admit it engages in torture would hurt our standing in the international community. Dershowitz agrees, but adds that if we are torturing prisoners, we should be hurt in the international community. We shouldn't be able to do something and hide it. That's not the way a democracy behaves.

Dershowitz is a staunch advocate of free speech, despite its risks. He says he shares the hope of his idol, American founding father Thomas Jefferson, that the public can discern the truth if all ideas, even repugnant ones, are given a fair hearing.

He recalls the controversy that erupted in 1977, when a group of neo-Nazis sought a permit to march through a neighborhood of Skokie, Illinois, where many Jewish holocaust survivors lived. He says that when the City of Skokie decided to ban the march he became very involved in the case. "You don't have the power to ban that march," Dershowitz says he told the city officials. "If you can ban the Nazis today, you can ban (civil rights leader) Martin Luther King tomorrow, and you can ban gay rights demonstrations the next day and other demonstrations the day after."

Dershowitz adds that his mother was furious. "She said 'what side are you on?' I wouldn't pick between those two sides. I am on the side of free speech. I think you have to be consistent when you defend the principle of free speech. You can't have 'free speech for me but not for thee."

Dershowitz is well-known for his lectures and books defending the existence of the State of Israel, which he calls an imperfect democracy, unjustly maligned. But he has also favored, since 1970, an independent Palestinian state. These positions have made him enemies on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

"Well, I am always hated by extremists," muses Dershowitz. "But one should be judged by his enemies. The people that thos who hate me, hate me. If they began to like me, I'd really, really worry!"

As Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard University, Alan Dershowitz still carries a busy teaching schedule, but he says he hopes to scale back a bit on those duties. He has just finished a book on Thomas Jefferson and the First Amendment, and is planning at least three other new books: one on coercive interrogation in a time of terrorism, one on human rights, and another on the Left-Right divide in American political life.

It's clear that wherever his travels take him, Alan Dershowitz will continue to explore, with passion, the central questions of our time.

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