Good morning, and thank you for having me here.
I’m an admirer of this group and of your purpose. Because we live in an incredible country, the greatest on the face of the planet, leading the world in freedom and prosperity… and you have rightly identified the fact that if we don’t participate in politics, government and community service, if we aren’t aware of why the American fabric is special and engage in its development – we risk the decline of our greatness, a diminution of our influence.
Even in a democracy – in our case a representative republic – the people can lose their influence if they choose not to participate. A disengaged populous leaves a small, self-selected group of people in charge. And of course, what we are designed to achieve here in America is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
Your purpose, and our collective purpose here today, is to keep an eye on whether our citizens are participating in President Lincoln’s hope, Dr. King’s dream, our founding fathers’ vision.
I want to say a few words here about an issue currently in the news that implicates American history and civic and political participation, and that is the current discussion about our treaty obligations under Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention. It seems that criticism of the tactics used by the Government in the war on terror are often framed in the context of the Government not respecting our values, our civil liberties, and our rights under the Constitution. Clearly, we all believe that we should follow the Constitution, but what does that mean? For example, our due process rights under the 5 th and 14 th Amendments and our right to be free from unreasonable searches under the 4 th Amendment are susceptible to many interpretations. Thus their meaning have been informed throughout American history by court decisions and by related statutes passed by Congress. The interpretations by our branches of government reinforce respect for the Constitution by providing clarity and definition to ambiguous words and phrases. Such actions I would argue, strengthen the Constitution and no one would seriously argue that seeking Supreme Court review of the Constitution is an effort to strips away our rights or an attempt to weaken or redefine the Constitution.
The same logic applies to the current discussion of our obligations under Common Article 3. Because of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hamdan case, we now understand that Common Article 3 applies to our conflict with Al Qaida. But aside from the important requirement of humane treatment (which, by the way, the United States was already providing) it is perfectly reasonable to ask what Common Article 3 requires.
Common Article 3 prohibits outrages upon personal dignity and humiliating and degrading treatment. Such phrases standing alone mean different things to Americans. Think of the differences in interpretation that will exist between differing legal systems and cultures of the nations of the world. Much as we are informed by the courts and Congress as to the meaning of due process and unreasonable searches under the Constitution the President believes it is important for the Congress to provide clarity to the meaning of Common Article 3 consistent with our values, using a U.S. Constitutional based standard. The President is advocating a standard that prohibits cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment—a standard based on years of U.S. Court decisions interpreting the constitutional prohibitions on cruel and unusual punishment that protect U.S. citizens in custody. This standard was overwhelmingly supported by the Congress last year in the Detainee Treatment Act.
Seeking this clarity is important to our efforts to continue gathering information about our enemies. In all that we do in the war on terror we seek to promote the rule of law and protect freedom. Defining our treaty obligations after the fact through domestic legislation has been done many times by our Congress and it ensures an understanding of our treaty obligations that is consistent with our values.
As Attorney General, I attend a good number of naturalization ceremonies, which are focus-studies on the meaning of citizenship and I think provide an interesting backdrop for your work.
The ceremonies are always very personal for me. My parents were both children of immigrants and they instilled in me a deep appreciation for being an American. They never let me forget that being a citizen of this great country means having limitless chances – if you work hard and are prepared for that once in a lifetime opportunity!
It is a natural phenomenon that with every generation that we are removed from our immigrant roots, we lose some of that passion. Someone who chooses to be an American has probably thought more about what makes this country special… what makes it better than the country they are leaving behind.
The new citizen even takes a profound oath – swearing to “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic” – and most of the new citizens I have seen take the oath have tears in their eyes when they repeat the words. Because they are so very proud to become Americans.
I often leave naturalization ceremonies wondering: when is that moment of pride and allegiance for those of us who were fortunate enough to be born here? And how can we inspire that feeling in those who may not know how fortunate they are?
Tragedy can inspire feelings of pride, gratitude and patriotism, though it seems like a terrible way to get there.
Five years ago last week, Americans took flags out of their closets, pinned them on their lapels and sang the national anthem at sporting events with deepened emotion. Thousands joined America’s armed forces to fight for the freedom and the life they saw brutally attacked on that day.
I had a chance, two weeks ago, to visit for the second time the front-lines of the war on terror in Iraq. And the steadfast resolve of our men and women in uniform, as well as our civil servants who are there to help the Iraqi people stand up their new government, was inspirational.
These men and women work in a dangerous environment, with daily temperatures well over 100 degrees. They are away from their families. But everyone I met was energetic and proud…so proud to serve a country that has given us all so much. The Americans on the front lines believe what they are doing is important, so important that they are willing to risk their lives for the mission. Just being in their presence made this grandson of immigrants so incredibly proud to be an American.
To have seen these men and women at work in Iraq is to know that we will prevail in this decisive ideological struggle.
To have seen them is also to have learned something about citizenship.
That post-9/11 spirit of citizenship is so vibrant among our troops, but I know that it is not universal in our country. I think we all thought, and hoped, that the renewed sense of citizenship and patriotism would last… and that it would be one more way in which we show our enemies that they won’t win this war on terror.
The study you have released today, unfortunately, indicates that while 9/11 does seem to have increased community and national service and voting, we aren’t seeing the full-fledged civic renewal that we’d hoped for.
We can take heart in the progress, but must take stock of what is still missing.
I agree there are three key elements to American citizenship; they form a starting point in terms of teaching and inspiring civic involvement:
Respect for our Foundations: History and the Law
In my job, I am sworn to protect and defend the Constitution. I am humbled by that duty, as I believe our Constitution is one of the most important documents in the history of humankind.
I believe that we might find a re-birth of citizenship in a renewed emphasis on the Constitution in American history classes. Wouldn’t you like to see a graduating high school class who can at least recite the preamble?
I offer it here, today, as a refresher course… and to emphasize my point:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
I wish I could bring every American to the National Archives to see the documents that our country is built on. At this point that is unrealistic, but in the mean time, I feel strongly that this group and, indeed, every leader in public life, should call on American schools and teachers to spend more time studying the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution with their students.
The founding of our country was a very special time in world history – let’s teach it with a certain amount of reverence.
When they are old enough – again, around the time they graduate from high school – I’d like to see every young American declare their own independence and respect their Constitution by voting.
After all, the right to vote, and to have that vote count, is absolutely central to the existence of freedom. When President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 he said the right to vote is the lifeblood of our democracy. In Afghanistan and Iraq young American soldiers have fought and died so that Afghans and Iraqis could vote. And despite continuing danger, the citizens of those countries have participated in the millions.
This forum is an ideal place to brainstorm about how we might inspire younger generations to do better than their parents and grandparents have done in turns of voter participation.
I think we can start – as leaders, parents and teachers – by emphasizing that all elections are important, not just Presidential elections.
And it isn’t enough to simply cast a vote. It is equally important that the voter’s choices be informed about the qualifications of each candidate and the merits of each referendum or initiative. As a former Secretary of State and Chief Elections Officer for Texas, I know well the challenges of motivating our citizens on elections day.
Voting needs to be a habit, as regular as celebrating holidays. An enthusiasm for the act can be contagious – so let’s show our kids that voting, for a grown-up, is a special occasion.
This group is in a unique position to put a challenge to the American people – why not ask that, this November, every voter bring a friend, relative or colleague who doesn’t normally vote to the polls with them? Let’s set the bar high: Americans love a challenge.
The last element of citizenship to emphasize is volunteerism.
I found it compelling that your civic health index showed a correlation between voting and volunteering at the state level. I hope you are able to dig deeper on this and see if one inspires the other, and if there are things that federal, state and local governments can do to inspire both.
Whenever I speak to young lawyers I always encourage them to consider public service because in giving to others we rekindle and refine ourselves. It feels good to help others…to know that you have made a difference in someone’s life. Such opportunities not only make you a better lawyer, they also make you a better person.
There can be no question that volunteerism is good for society and good for the soul. I’m also interested in what it can do for a nation that is so blessed, so prosperous, that we may have lost a bit of perspective on our own fortune.
I am proud to serve a President who has put an emphasis on volunteering, on giving back. As he has said, “The great hope of the country lies in the hearts and the souls of its people.”
The President has also spoken about the Armies of Compassion that make our country so great. Whether it is the war on poverty, the war on drugs or the war on illiteracy we have citizen soldiers who confront daily the evils of our society so that our country remains a place where dreams still come true.
I am but one soldier in the Armies of Compassion. But I commit to you to do my part, working shoulder to shoulder, side by side with you for our beloved America.
Thank you again for having me here today, and thank you for your important work. May God bless you, may He guide your decisions and may He continue to bless the United States of America.