It is important to study and take the time to appreciate strong leadership and I have been looking forward to our discussion this afternoon. I believe that this nation has been extremely well-served by its leaders at critical moments in our history, and there is much to be learned from the decisions they made, and how they made them.
I’d like to begin today by mentioning a few of the Americans who I believe stand out in our history for their courage, for their steadfast commitment to what they knew to be right and rightly American – men who protected the foundations of our nation and set the stage for what we have evolved to be today: the standard bearer of equality and human dignity … of liberty and justice for all.
With their example as our guiding light, I’ll then share with you some thoughts I have about where we are, as a nation, on these critical issues – including observations from my own life and concrete examples of what your government is doing, today, to protect these uniquely American rights.
*** First, stories of leadership:
Beyond the solid foundation that was built by our Constitution, strong leadership has often made the difference in determining the direction of our country, and our ability to protect and promote basic human rights and freedoms.
I think you will agree that we cannot talk about leadership and equality without invoking the name and memory of President Abraham Lincoln. He was a man who hated war, but committed his country to the bloodiest of wars rather than lose it to the irreconcilable status of half slave, half free.
Lincoln was sure, to his core, that this difficult direction was the right one. He was so sure that he held steadfast through criticism, lost battles and massive human casualty. He did not bend, and in fact used all the powers of the presidency that he could to stick to the course. He withstood harsh ridicule for that use of power, but pressed on.
Lincoln pushed the limits. Without Congressional approval, he increased the size of the Army and Navy, spent money on weapons, and suspended the writ of habeas corpus. And by executive fiat, he freed the slaves through an executive proclamation. These actions were controversial. But history has shown that Lincoln’s vision and dedication were right and necessary. The risk was absolutely worth taking. Today, Lincoln is considered one of the best and most significant leaders this country has ever known.
At the time when he was making the hard decisions and exercising his leadership to save the union, Lincoln knew that he had many critics. In commenting on that fact, he said, quote, "I desire so to conduct the affairs of this administration that if at the end, when I come to lay down the reins of power, I have lost every other friend on earth, I shall at least have one friend left, and that friend shall be down inside me."
Half a century later, another American President, Woodrow Wilson, would commit the nation to war, face criticism, and remain steadfast. Having spent his first term doing everything he could to avoid war, Wilson delivered a poignant message to the Congress when he ultimately compelled them to commit troops to World War I. He said, quote, "There are, it may be, many months of fiery trial and sacrifice ahead of us. It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilization itself seeming to be in the balance. But the right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts -- for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free."
Wilson believed that the importance of protecting democracy – which is uniquely represented in this world by the United States – was worth great sacrifice. He is remembered as a visionary and a great leader.
Another war-time President, a man who we see today as having been absolutely the right leader at the right time in both national and global history, was Franklin Roosevelt. But at the time of his presidency, many called him “dictator,” “warmonger,” and even “fascist.”
In entering World War II, Roosevelt told Americans that our nation would be the “Arsenal for democracy.” He was right. And, indeed, the thought of a world today in which the United States had not lent its forces to defeat Nazi Germany is unimaginable.
The United States, and ultimately the world, are fortunate to have been led during difficult times by men of such conviction, such faith in the founding principles of this great, free nation. We are fortunate that they were not easily swayed by critics – who inevitably have the luxury of voicing their views without risking human lives, without committing soldiers to war or leaving the innocent without protection.
These great, proven leaders could not change course based on complaints. They could not please all constituents all of the time – no public official can. Instead they courageously set course based on conviction and a deep, philosophical understanding of what was right and what was necessary.
As I’m sure this symposium has shown, year after year, the term “leadership” can be defined in so many ways. In this great nation of ours, I believe the most successful leadership has been guided by a deeply-rooted belief in those things that make this country special: Freedom. Equality. Liberty, and justice.
It is therefore fitting that the theme of this year’s symposium is “equality and human dignity.” The American commitment to these values is, I believe, unique.
I have seen this commitment deepen visibly, and at times dramatically, over my lifetime.
Equality and human dignity have meant something special to me since I was very young – perhaps because I grew up in a time and a place where those things were not a “given” in every situation. When I joined the Air Force in 1973, I was welcomed into a community that was a little different from what I had known growing up – because in the Air Force, everyone really was basically treated the same. Equality was real because integrity, service and excellence were the things that were valued most. They are the things that really count in life, and that will save lives in battle. This emphasis on higher values and life-or-death skills leaves no room for petty or bigoted judgments.
I had come to the Air Force from a background that included the uncomfortable knowledge that some folks didn’t see me as just “Al Gonzales.” They might see me as Hispanic, as “Mexican,” or as being different because I was from a certain, poor neighborhood. I knew that some people I encountered in life might miss the other important things about me because of that narrow view.
Playing sports had been an equalizer for me during those younger years. I loved baseball and football. If you were good, and played fair, you could be a star. Your teammates were your brothers, regardless of race.
But things could get complicated at school, socially. I dated a girl in high school whose parents did not like me dating their daughter because I was Mexican. She and I didn’t care about our differences, but her parents couldn’t see past them.
I remember vowing, at that time, to prove to the girl’s parents, someday, that I was just as good as they were.
I think it was important during those times that I held on to the belief that being an American meant having equal opportunity. I knew it was true because I watched my mom and dad and other adults in my neighborhood go to the polls on election days. On that day, they had the same say, the same voice as anyone else in how our state and our country would be run. We had the same vote, the same amount of power to choose our government.
That appreciation of American equality made my heart beat with hope in the classroom – where I studied hard and discovered that America’s founders had written that “all men are created equal.” My heart also beat with hope on the baseball and football fields – where I played hard and dreamt of being a professional athlete. And it beat with hope in the stands of the stadium at Rice University, where I worked selling Cokes to fans and dreaming that someday I might sit in their seats, cheering for my school’s team.
My experiences were not unlike those of so many other American minorities – both the hurtful, challenging times and the times filled with hope.
Many before and after me experienced treatment and racism much, much more harsh than I ever did – utterly unthinkable abuse and violence in far too many cases.
I believe I was fortunate to have been growing up in time when things were getting better in this country. I was eight years old when Dr. King spoke of his dream, and by the time I was in high school, that dream was beginning to be realized. The words “all men are created equal” were becoming far truer than the day they were written.
In my final year here at the Academy, I witnessed another moment in the evolution of equality in this nation when the Academy admitted its first female cadets.
I won’t pretend that the admittance of women was without controversy here on campus. The women of the class of 1980, unfortunately, weren’t welcomed by all. I think some questioned the wisdom of the change and resented the end of a tradition. Like so many women and minorities before them, the first female cadets persevered through a time of difficult social transition and they have made the Academy, and our nation, a better place– women like Brigadier General Susan Desjardins, class of 1980, the first woman to serve as the Academy's Commandant of Cadets. We are proud of Brigadier General Susan Helms, also class of 1980, who was the first woman graduate astronaut, flying on four Space Shuttle missions and serving five months on the International Space Station. My generation didn’t have everything right; our social evolution was sometimes painful. But we did experience more equality than our parents did and because of what I have seen in my lifetime, I continue to be impressed by the evolution of attitudes toward equality from one American generation to the next. Unlike other cultures, intolerance is not often passed down here in the land of the free.
I am speaking broadly, of course. There are terrible exceptions to what I see as a positive trend.
But the evidence of my own life is hard to ignore.
My friends in high school were more open-minded than some of their parents were, for example. And my sons are growing up in a time even better yet, where their race and that of their classmates is so inconsequential that it rarely comes up as a topic. The eyes of my children’s generation seem largely colorblind to me.
For this and many other reasons, I believe that this country is living up to its ideals today more than ever before. We are doing our best to heal the wounds of the past. Our commitment to human dignity is unrivaled in the world – and I’ll speak more to that fact in a moment.
The progress of true equality in this nation during the course of my lifetime was evident, in a very poignant way, to me just a few weeks ago.
On January 25th, the Department of Justice indicted a former member of the Ku Klux Klan alleged to have participated in the abduction, brutal beating and forcible drowning of two black men – Henry Dee and Charlie Moore – in Mississippi in 1964.
Being part of the Department of Justice on that day was a moment that I will remember as a highlight of my time as a public servant because it was a day that meant so very much to the families of those men who were killed in an act of unbridled racism. The Department’s commitment to seeking justice in this decades-old case brought a lot of peace to a family who had suffered greatly in a time of terrible darkness and struggle in our nation’s history.
As much as I believe deeply in the American dream – and as much as I know that I, myself, am living proof of that dream – I also know that the dream still needs to be supported and protected, every day. I’m honored to help with that support and protection as Attorney General.
The murders of Henry Dee and Charlie Moore would not go unanswered today, as they did in the 1960s, when I was a boy. And the Department that I am proud to head doesn’t let other offenses to human dignity go unanswered, either.
We work, instead, to protect the American dream every day. We are the passionate defenders of voting rights, working with our partners in state governments to ensure both full access to voting and the integrity of the ballots cast.
We have recently established a Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit within our Civil Rights division because the victims of modern-day slavery desperately need our help in finding freedom in the freest country on earth. We are rescuing the victims and giving them a voice in hopes of putting and end to this heinous practice, where people – most often minority women and children, immigrants and U.S. citizens alike – are forced or coerced into prostitution, labor or illicit sexual activity.
The work we do at the Justice Department to protect children from sexual predators and pedophiles also speaks to America’s dedication to protecting human dignity. A child is a human being. Predators and pedophiles treat them like their prey, and this simply cannot be tolerated in a nation of laws designed to elevate human dignity and rights.
I feel strongly that abiding by our nation’s laws is central to equality and human dignity as well. That’s why the law enforcement community works so hard to reduce violent crime – we know that a young person who lives among criminals, in an environment of fear, cannot take full advantage of the opportunities offered by this great nation. Equality can only be fully enjoyed when we feel safe, and a neighborhood that functions in the shadow of gangs and drugs does not feel safe.
Those who participate in the gang or criminal life are not respectful of those values that this Academy rightly holds up as priorities: integrity, service before self, and excellence. Their actions also disrespect human dignity and flout the blessings of American equality.
Today’s topic inevitably reminds us of all these challenges America has faced and will face – in the past, present and future – to uphold that American dream and that ideal of equality. We need to be ever-mindful of this important challenge, and to think of our role in the global community as well.
The United States stands as a shining example to the people of the world because our foundations of freedom are strong, and because we have dealt with our flaws throughout our history. I hope that we have learned from our mistakes … and for the most part, I believe that we have.
The establishment of this great nation has also consistently offered a unique breadth of freedom. From the start, we represented freedom of religion, of association, and of speech. Immigrants to this country could, and can, leave a caste system behind and establish a better future for their family here. That’s what my own grandparents did.
Today we are writing the latest chapter that will clarify American dedication to human dignity and equality. We are engaged in an important national conversation about how to ensure civil liberties while we aggressively fight the War on Terror. Our enemies would not have this debate, yet our dedication to human dignity and liberty – things for which they have no respect – ultimately helps protect their human rights.
Some Americans ask why their government is going so far to protect the rights of terrorists or would-be terrorists, while others insist that we aren’t offering enough protection. It is a critical and often contentious debate, but I hope all sides agree that America has a unique responsibility to set the global standard for liberty and fair conduct.
We are a beacon of hope. I travel quite a bit for my job, and I am reminded every time I go abroad of how much the world looks to us as an example.
The world looks to us to set high standards for freedom, and we take that leadership role very seriously.
Other countries sometimes strike a different balance between security and freedom, both in the activities they punish as crimes, and in the procedures with which they do so.
Other nations give terrorists the same rights as every other criminal – car thieves, bank robbers and terrorists are all the same in those courts. As people in this room know, in the United States we have a long-standing tradition of trying those who violate the laws of war in military trials. Our approach is different; that does not mean it is wrong.
In some instances, our allies have adopted or utilized some counterterrorism tools that we have not adopted in the United States because doing so would abridge the civil liberties protected by our constitution.
For example, speaking out in support of past terrorist acts is punishable in several European countries, including Italy, Spain, and France. And after the July 2005 terrorist attacks in London, the United Kingdom passed a law making it a crime to directly or indirectly encourage terrorism, or to disseminate terrorist publications, or to post “terrorist publications” on the Internet. Laws like these contain aspects that would be inconsistent with the First Amendment if adopted in the United States.
Another example: In France, police can hold suspects in custody for up to 96 hours if there are plausible reasons to suspect that the person has been involved in a terrorism offense, or up to six days if there is a serious danger that acts of terrorism are believed to be imminent. Compare this to our country, where there must be a probable cause hearing within 48 hours of a suspect’s arrest.
And in the United Kingdom, the arrest or search of a suspected terrorist is allowed if law enforcement “reasonably suspects” the person to be a terrorist or to possess “anything which may constitute evidence that he is a terrorist.” This reasonable suspicion standard is a lesser standard than the “probable cause” standard required under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The terrorism suspect can be detained in the United Kingdom for up to 28 days, and the reviewing official still does not need to find probable cause–only that there are reasonable grounds to believe that detention is necessary to obtain relevant evidence.
In short, there are a variety of approaches to combating terrorism, and each country, including ours, makes choices based on their values and unique legal system.
I’m proud of the American approach, and of the laws that we have established. Our laws are unique … they uniquely protect human rights.
That said, debate is still necessary, and our right to free speech supports that debate.
I believe the vitality of the discussion over treatment of detainees is important. And I believe it is a sign that we are mature as a nation, as a culture and a society, that all sides of the debate agree that to achieve victory at the cost of eroding civil liberties would not really be a victory. We all agree that we cannot change the core identity of our Nation and claim success.
In conclusion, I want to emphasize the fact that, through our laws, our founding principles and our cultural attitudes, this nation celebrates equality and the human spirit every day.
Public service has taught me that what I hoped was true about our country when I was a young boy, really is true. The United States government really does operate by the philosophy that “all men are created equal.” Through the power given to the government by the people, human dignity is protected and civil rights are enforced.
The cadets in this room today will be among the next to take on the responsibility of both protecting and promoting the American ideal of equality, of liberty and justice for all. Do not take this lightly. It is not easy work to maintain the beacon of freedom and hope for the world. And you will inevitably face challenges; each generation does.
But do, do approach the task with pride of self and of country. It is a great nation that happily embraces and supports an Hispanic Attorney General, an African-American Secretary of State and a woman Speaker of the House – when just one generation ago such diverse leadership seemed a far distance into the future.
We are great for our foundations but even greater for our progress. The American dream is real, it lives in our hearts, is protected by our laws and promoted by our greatest leaders. I believe your generation will take the American dream to its highest heights yet.
Thank you again; may God bless you, may he watch over you and guide your discussions and may he continue to bless the United States of America.