Remarks of Attorney General John Ashcroft
EOUSA Directors Awards
November 6, 2002
(Note: The Attorney General Often Deviates From Prepared Remarks)
One of my great privileges as Attorney General is the opportunity to speak on occasions such as this ceremonies that honor the men and women of justice and at the same time pay an unspoken tribute to the role of the family in service to the nation.
When justice honors its own, the hall is often filled with the husbands, wives, children, and parents of those we gather together to honor. Their presence is a reminder that our service to the nation is also a lesson to those around us. In everything we do, we teach. When we sacrifice for the cause of justice, we teach others that there are more important things than ourselves causes and principles and values that transcend us; things that are worth sacrificing for.
Since we gathered here last year, just two and a half months after the attacks of September 11, the sacrifices the nation has asked of our U.S. Attorneys, FBI agents and all federal, state and local law enforcement have only grown.
You have been asked to accept new challenges, and you have not shrunk from these challenges. You have been asked to refocus your efforts, your thoughts and your actions on preventing further attacks on our homeland. You have worked tirelessly and well, and you have succeeded.
For example, just this afternoon I announced that we have charged four men in Houston in a multi-million dollar drugs-for-weapons scheme intended to aid Colombian terrorists. And in San Diego, three individuals were indicted for conspiring to trade drugs for anti-aircraft missiles intended for al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan. These are significant advances in the war on terror, and could not have been made without the outstanding and often dangerous work of law enforcement and justice officials.
And so we come together today to honor you. We honor your achievements, borne of sacrifice. We acknowledge your excellence, borne of relentless, hard work. And we thank you for accepting your new responsibilities, not as burdens you must bear, but as opportunities to be embraced.
Nearly a century and a half ago, President Abraham Lincoln stood before his fellow citizens during another time of great testing, reminding them of the great privilege and great responsibility that fell to them: "Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history," Lincoln said. "We . . . will be remembered in spite of ourselves. The fiery trial though which we pass will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We even we here hold the power and bear the responsibility."
Ninety-nine years later, President John F. Kennedy inspired a nation confronting the menace of communism and relished the opportunity history placed before America to see communism defeated. Kennedy said, quote, "In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. . . I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation."
The words of President Lincoln and President Kennedy resonate deeply for our own generation. We, too, find ourselves in the midst of an historic struggle for the values of democracy. We, too, have been granted the role of defending freedom, not just for ourselves, but for generations of Americans to come. We, too, have the opportunity to make history.
In prosecuting terrorism, we stand at the intersection of traditional law enforcement and national security. The crossroads at which we find ourselves is a place of both peril and opportunity; a junction at which vital public interests come together. Our responsibility to enforce the law and to respect the rights of Americans to defend freedom through the law is unchanged. But today, the stakes are higher.
There are no second chances in the campaign to prevent another September 11. If we fail in our responsibility to secure justice, we invite more than the risk of additional criminality. Failure risks the survival of our nation and the survival of freedom.
Our challenge is compounded by the fact that today we go about the job of securing justice literally under the glare of 24-hour, seven days a week news coverage. As justice and law enforcement officials, our every decision, our every action, our every inaction, is magnified Every-day crimes and high speed chases that were once ignored are now major if fleeting media events.
And the glare of the media spotlight brings unprecedented accountability to the public. In the glass house of justice, the burden falls to us to act with quality, integrity and professionalism; to be measured but decisive; to be accountable without pandering; to achieve the ends of justice without compromising the peoples faith in justice.
No democracy can long endure without the confidence of the people it serves. Since we execute so much of our responsibility publicly, our challenge to excellence is unceasing. Quality must be our objective, excellence must be our standard. Consistency must be our goal.
Our challenge is unique. Our accountability is unprecedented. Our work, therefore, must be unparalleled.
Providing for the safety and security of the nation is the first and primary responsibility of government. As justice and law enforcement officials, we have no option other than to do our jobs as if our lives the lives of our families and loved ones, and the lives of our fellow citizens depend upon our performance.
Our responsibilities are great, but so too is our recompense. Our reward is the safety of our fellow citizens; the gratitude of our nation; the quiet knowledge that we had the opportunity to defend freedom in its hour of maximum danger, and we grasped that opportunity for all it was worth.
On a rainy autumn day in the year 1415, King Henry V led some six-thousand of his troops to Agincourt to face a French army nearly five times their number. The date was October 25, St. Crispins Day. Before the battle, the King disguised himself as a commoner. Rallying his anxious soldiers in a speech made famous by Shakespeare, King Henry reminded his troops of their place in history:
"This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall never go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
"And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day."
Six hundred years later, history beckons yet again. We, too, cannot escape the challenge placed before us. It is more than a duty, and more than a privilege; it is the calling of our time. And I, too, do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation.
The security of our nation, the safety of our citizens, and the survival of freedom is in our hands. We few, we happy few, hold the power and bear the responsibility. May we wield this power respectfully, and bear this responsibility faithfully. And may all who stand with us think themselves blessed for the opportunity to defend freedom by our sides.
Thank you for your leadership. Thank you for your sacrifice. May God bless you and may God bless the United States of America.