Remarks of the Honorable David J. Hickton
United States Attorney For The Western District of Pennsylvania
What an honor it is for me to be invited here to speak in this great Temple of worship at this special time of year and before this congregation, which includes so many of my friends. Thank you, Rabbi Symons, for the invitation and for all of your work, especially with the Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network.
Thank you, Rabbi Gibson, for your friendship, your hospitality and for your service of almost a quarter of a century to the entire community here in Western Pennsylvania. You have been a leader and a conscience for faith, hope, love and tolerance. All people of every religion, and those of no religion, have been blessed by your work.
Our promise of liberty and opportunity remains the envy of the world. Yet many of our fellow citizens face civil rights deprivations, including challenges to ensure one of the cornerstone founding principles of our Nation: the freedom of religion, the right to choose and practice your faith without persecution. Many citizens and some entire neighborhoods contend with the terror of random violence which threatens the security of their homes, their children and their families. Many of our neighbors still struggle with hate and bigotry depriving them of a fair chance at the American Dream.
I believe that freedom and justice are interdependent. What that means, in practice, is that we are not free unless we bring justice to those who tear our social fabric by violating civil rights, committing hate crimes or who tyrannize our neighborhoods through fear and violence.
I recognize both the power and limits of my position as U.S. Attorney to make a positive impact. My job requires a balance. We cannot prosecute our way out of hate, intolerance and violence. We need the community, including the faith community, to share responsibility and accountability for the public safety and common good.
I am grateful for this invitation and for the opportunity to share with you what we are doing in the Department of Justice and here in the United States Attorney’s Office to enforce the Federal laws protecting our freedoms and ensuring justice for all. I also want to tell you about our hopes about how we can work together with faith leaders of all denominations to reduce violence and intolerance.
My experience is that the commitment of this Administration to freedom and justice is absolute. The Civil Rights Division has been restored to the role it had under Robert Kennedy as conscience of the Nation. We established here a dedicated Civil Rights Section in our office. Across the Country, a top priority has been to identify, investigate and prosecute civil rights violations including hate crimes, religious persecution, prisoner abuse, abuse of authority, housing discrimination, lending discrimination and many types of illegal bias and hate. The Shepard-Byrd Hate Crime Prevention Act of 2009 expands upon prior laws to afford more coverage and protection to victims and federal resources to identify crimes, to prosecute them and prevent them in the future. As one measure of the necessity of this work, last month I signed the second cross-burning indictment since I have been in office. We obtained guilty pleas in the first case, and the second case is being prosecuted. That cross-burnings are occurring in Western Pennsylvania in the 21st Century is a chilling reminder that our civil rights work is not done.
As part of the civil rights effort, we are doing outreach to the community and providing training to our local law enforcement. This has several benefits. It helps us find civil rights violations. It also identifies and unites active partners and helps achieve a new day of respect and tolerance and thus fewer civil rights deprivations.
We take religious discrimination very seriously. We have directly addressed the Arab, Muslim and Sikh communities through outreach work. Members of these communities have been subjected to violence and the threat of violence since 9-11. Discrimination continues and acceptance and inclusion of these valued and contributing members of our community has been slow. We have pledged to confront ignorance and hatred when our fellow citizens are subjected to the violence of intolerance.
Our Office has intensified our commitment to identify and eliminate the narco-gun-gang criminals who use drugs as currency; fear and intimidation as their methods, and violence and death as their enforcement tools. For example, we have pressed prosecutions in the North Side against members of rival gangs who have terrorized that community. 70 defendants have pled or been convicted and the community is safer. This week’s news reports a 21-year jail sentence for a drug dealer whose source was from Bosnia, who cheered the deaths of Pittsburgh Police Officers Paul Scuillo, Eric Kelly and Steven Mahyle while threatening to kill a man who owed him money and “shoot up his baby’s mom’s crib”. In January of this year, a defendant previously convicted in federal court for trafficking in oxycodone, was finally brought to justice for the execution-style killing of a cooperating witness against him. These offenders perpetrate an evil and criminal lifestyle which deprives entire communities of quiet and safe enjoyment of their homes and neighborhoods.
While we have been vigilant in pursuing these community impact prosecutions, we have been equally committed to crime prevention and supporting vigorous reentry efforts to help criminal offenders reconnect and reenter society, thus reducing recidivism.
We see our work to reduce violence as interrelated to our civil rights work. Protecting our communities from chronic random violence protects basic freedoms.
Our Office and our partners are all doing and accomplishing a lot; but we cannot do it alone – we need your help.
We need faith-based leaders and organizations to find ways to work together to protect and enhance our common welfare. We need to advance interfaith understanding and cooperation. In our work here in Western Pennsylvania, I have been grateful for the help of Reverend John Welch and Rabbi Symons. Imam Tadese of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh has been most helpful with his friendship and guidance. Bishop Zubik is a partner in our crime prevention work as a member of the Youth Futures Commission. Rabbi Gibson and Rabbi Bisno have been generous with their time and wisdom. There has been a recurring suggestion in my work with each and all of the faith leaders that it is hard to hate someone if you know them. We all recognize the imperative to reduce violence in our communities.
Last month, we convened a meeting of religious leaders in our office. Present were leaders of Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Hindu communities. We met again today. We plan to invite and include leaders across many faiths to future meetings.
We must task this group to bring members of their congregations together so that we all get to know each other, that we have a chance to work together, to understand each other, to appreciate our common ground, to enjoy our differences and celebrate our diversity. Through our work, an appreciation will emerge that, regardless of the divergence of sectarian religious views, principles and beliefs, the important things we agree upon should not be consumed by debate and discussion and conflict over the areas of disagreement. We all share the common ground that a civil rights deprivation to one is an injury to all.
Our aspirations are based upon the foundations of all faith-based organizations. Love one another; afford dignity and respect to each other; treat others as you hope they would treat you. We need to offer an opportunity and positive examples of how to transform a culture of intolerance and violence into a culture of dignity and respect. A fine example is set here in the Jewish community where youth activities, the care for the elderly, the ministry to the sick, end-of-life assistance and the full range of community needs are the great work of Temple Sinai, Rodef Shalom and with the support of the Federation.
Despite all of this good work, the faith community has more to offer. We have not tapped the full potential of this resource.
In 2009, Rabbi Gibson and Imam Tadese co-authored an op-ed which maps the roadway for the most ambitious undertaking of our work. Quoting Franklin Roosevelt, they said, “we have nothing to fear but fear itself”. Challenging the community to be more open, to be more tolerant, to be less fearful, these leaders of Jewish and Muslim faith joined together. They recognized their lack of complete agreement on all issues but affirmed their common interest in reducing fear, and hate, and violence. By enhancing respect and dignity and standing together against hatred, these men of faith exhibited courage and practical insight.
We want to partner with you to make a better Pittsburgh and safer Western Pennsylvania. I ask each of you and each faith organization to look inward and ask, “can I do more?; can we do better?; can I make a difference?” Let us inspire a new day of personal and community responsibility. Let us work to ensure opportunity; to lend a helping hand to a reformed offender; a promise of hope to an adolescent trying to make the right choice and to demonstrate a community commitment to help law enforcement make our neighborhoods safer.
We will all benefit if we build a strong and committed interfaith network here. That group can foster educational outreach to the broader community. This education will enhance understanding. We need to encourage more community and interfaith interactions to break down the walls between faith and community groups. We need to all stand together to condemn hate and intolerance, to identify crimes of discrimination and violence and to report them for prosecution. This threat is fueled by silence and inaction; and defeated by community collaboration and commitment.
We pledge to be a faithful partner in our work together. We have different responsibilities, but essentially the same purpose to build a more secure, a more free and more just society. Let us work together to build a more tolerant and inclusive community, a more secure community, to ensure the promise of our founding documents and the words of our Pledge of Allegiance; liberty and justice, not for some, but for all.