Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association 22nd Annual National Awards Banquet And Ceremony Remarks By U.S. Attorney John Walsh
It is a profound honor to speak to you all tonight, both as a member of the federal law enforcement community, and also as a citizen of this great Republic. As others have noted long before me, speaking in praise of men and women for their specific acts of courage and heroism, as you have asked me to do, is not only an honor, but also a profound challenge. My fear is that my lack of eloquence might somehow diminish or undervalue the worth of the remarkable deeds you will soon be hearing about tonight. The facts themselves are the best form of praise, and they speak eloquently in true homage to the brave agents and officers who are being honored here.
Nevertheless, let me offer a few observations as a deeply appreciative lawyer and prosecutor. Sometimes I am sure that it appears to all of you in law enforcement that we prosecutors have lost sight of who is actually doing the hard work of law enforcement, as we sit comfortably in our office chairs, dispensing what we are confident is great wisdom, or at worst, while we stand before the occasional irate judge or skeptical jury as we prosecute a case. I’m sure it sometime looks like we’ve forgotten that we ourselves didn’t collect the evidence we present in court; or that we think that we ourselves arrested the defendants we cross-examine. And I know for a fact that it can appear at times that we have forgotten that while our role as prosecutors is important in our system of justice, it is merely the final formal act of bringing wrongdoers to justice, not the entire endeavor.
So, as a prosecutor, let me first be clear that we prosecutors do remember who actually does the difficult and all-too-often dangerous work of protecting the public in the hard-edged real world, not just the courtroom. And that is all of you -- and particularly, it is the men and women receiving awards tonight. Tonight you will hear the facts about acts of valor that are indeed the best praise of those we are honoring: Men and women who ran into burning buildings to save the aged and infirm; who engaged in intense firefights with the Taliban in Afghanistan; who sprinted to leap into speeding cars to bring them under control and then save the lives of the very wrongdoers they were seeking to apprehend; who dove into the raging ocean surf to rescue drowning swimmers at the cost of their own lives, and more. My words tonight are small in the balance compared to the simple facts of what these men and women have done. There is so much to honor here.
Any thoughtful person hearing these tales of heroism will ask him or herself two questions. The first is the age-old question: Had I been there that day, would I have acted so nobly? That question, I suppose, has no certain answer until the actual moment arrives. The second question is more complex: Why? Why did these men and women react and act in a way that was so true, so good and so selfless?
Let me address the second question first, in the hope that it might help us all consider the first as well. Why were these men and women so brave and selfless? Obviously, I can’t speak to their thoughts and motivations individually, but let me venture a few broad observations based on my experience in and with law enforcement.
First, there is no doubt that character played a commanding role. Each of the award winners here tonight reached down deep into their souls in a moment of crisis and danger and found something strong and true that they could work with, that impelled them to act, and that freed them to act.
Moreover, the intense and superior training that all of you have received as law enforcement, whether federal, state or local, unquestionably played a crucial role. These men and women, like you, had been trained and conditioned to act under dangerous and unclear circumstances, to weigh the various options almost instantaneously, and to act as their trained judgment guided them.
But as I read through the awards before coming here, something else also struck me: As you listen to the awards this evening, you will note that many of the officers being honored acted in the specific furtherance of their duty as law enforcement officers, and that many others did not – that is, they intervened to rescue others while off-duty or merely passing by, and with no direct relationship to their law enforcement work. Now, whether as part of their immediate duty or not, these acts are equally noble and equally deserving of our praise.
But the fact that our law enforcement officers acted without hesitation in both circumstances – on duty, or off -- is telling, because it says something fundamental about what motivated them: A sense of responsibility; a sense of ownership of our nation and community; and an abiding sense of our common humanity.
And that says something crucial not only about these officers, but about this nation. Why did these men and women feel so deeply that sense of common purpose and responsibility? Police officers in Egypt or Syria today are also highly trained, but guess what -- they don’t act this way. Quite to the contrary, by all accounts they are behaving in a diametrically opposite way. And the highly trained police in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union did not rise to the aid of others in this way – far from it. They put their training to different, and darker, uses.
No, in the end, what struck me about the acts of valor that we will be hearing about tonight is they are the acts of a free people, living in a democracy that calls on all of us to participate and all of us, in effect, to rule ourselves, putting us to that highest test. They are the acts of people living in a democracy that operates under the protection of a law – our Constitution – that holds us all equal in our rights and equal in our obligations to others, a law that in this country guides us in our day-to-day lives, not just in our courts.
These men and women acted as they did because of their incredible character and intense training, yes. But they also acted in this noble way because they are Americans, who feel and understand reflexively that they themselves are responsible for their communities, and who know in the very marrow of their bones that upon each of them and each of us depends the success or failure of this great experiment in democracy and freedom that we call the United States of America.
We live in a time of great conflict and discord in the nation’s politics, and it is easy to get a little disheartened about the future of our public life. But reading these awards leaves no doubt that the future of our great national experiment is in very good hands. These men and women show us we have nothing to fear. And they give us something priceless: When the day does arrive for each of us when that first question is called: “Will I act so bravely?” we have their real, living example urging us on.
So, in closing, let me say this: Thank you – both to the award winners here tonight, whose contributions have been frankly astonishing, but also to all their family members here, who are the rock on which these men and women depend. My particular thanks and deepest best wishes go to the family of Special Agent Knapp, who is honored tonight and who lost his life in order to save others. And finally, let me also thank all the members of law enforcement in attendance. Thank you not only for the work you do, and the bravery you show, but for the light you hold up showing all of us as Americans what free men and free women can do.