October 31, 2020
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'We Were Founded As A Nation That Practiced Slavery'

Full text of the much talked-about speech delivered by Bill Clinton at Georgetown University, USA, on November 7, 2001 (the one that The Washington Times called "anti-American" so often that it became a "fact")

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'We Were Founded As A Nation That Practiced Slavery'

Thank you very much. Thank you Brian for your remarks. Thank you President DeGioia for what you said and your leadership at Georgetown. It is kind of hard for me to get used to a president younger than I am. Thank you Dean Gallucci for helping me to come here and for the great work you did in our administration when I was president. And I would also like to thank the large number of people here who are my classmates, friends, who served as ambassadors and in other positions in my administration. All of them are sitting there thinking that it seemed like yesterday when all of us looked like all of you. So I think I can say for all of them, we are very grateful for what Georgetown did for us. We loved it when we were here and we love it still and we are honored to be part of a family that has given me this opportunity. I would also like to say a special word of thanks to one of my professors, Fr. Otto Hentz, who is here. He never abandoned me for all these years, even though he did not succeed in convincing me to become a Jesuit.

I am delighted that so many students are here today. I've come here too many times when I thought there were not enough students in this hall, so I am very glad to see you all and I thank you for coming and I'm sorry that some of you had to wait in line awhile for the tickets. When I came here ten years ago, as your president said, it was a remarkable time, a different time. It was the end of the Cold War, the beginning of the global information age-two realities that govern our lives today that we now take for granted that seemed quite new then.

One point I made ten years ago still seems to be particularly relevant ten years later, and I would like to begin with that. Back then I said our foreign policies are not really foreign at all anymore. In a world growing ever more interdependent, the lines between foreign and domestic policy are becoming meaningless, distinctions without a difference. I want to resume the discussion on that point today, ten years later, with the benefit or the handicap, depending on your view, of eight years as president, and in light of the unfolding events since September 11.

First let me say that anything I say has to be viewed in the context of my present job-I am just a citizen, and as a citizen I support the efforts of President Bush, the national security team, and our allies in fighting the current terrorist threat. I believe we all should. The terrorists who stuck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon believed they were attacking the two most important symbols of American materialism and power. I think they were wrong about that. I live and work in New York, my wife Hillary represents the people of New York as a United States senator, I was commander-in-chief of the people who show up and work everyday at the Pentagon. The people who died represent, in my view, not only the best of America, but the best of the world that I worked hard for eight years to build. A world of great freedom and growing opportunity; a world of citizen responsibility, of growing diversity and sharing community, a world that looks like the student body here today. Look at you. You are from everywhere. Look at us and you will see how more diverse America has grown in the last thirty plus years. The terrorists killed people who came to America not to die, but dream, from every continent, from dozens of countries, most every religion on the face of the earth, including in large numbers Islam. They, those that died in New York, the Pentagon, and Pennsylvania, are part of a very different world and a very different worldview than those who killed them. Now I would submit to you that we are now in a struggle with the soul of the 21st century and the world in which you students live and raise your own children and make your own way. I believe that there are several things that as Americans we ought to do and I would like to outline them in a fairly direct fashion.

First, we have to win the fight we are in and in that I urge you to keep three things in mind. First of all, terror, the killing of noncombatants for economic, political, or religious reasons has a very long history as long as organized combat itself, and yet, it has never succeeded as a military strategy standing on its own, but it has been around a long time. Those of us who come from various European lineages are not blameless. Indeed, in the first Crusade, when the Christian soldiers took Jerusalem, they first burned a synagogue with 300 Jews in it, and proceeded to kill every woman and child who was Muslim on the Temple mound. The contemporaneous descriptions of the event describe soldiers walking on the Temple mound, a holy place to Christians, with blood running up to their knees. I can tell you that that story is still being told to today in the Middle East and we are still paying for it. Here in the United States, we were founded as a nation that practiced slavery and slaves were, quite frequently, killed even though they were innocent. This country once looked the other way when significant numbers of Native Americans were dispossessed and killed to get their land or their mineral rights or because they were thought of as less than fully human and we are still paying the price today. Even in the 20th century in America people were terrorized or killed because of their race. And even today, though we have continued to walk, sometimes to stumble, in the right direction, we still have the occasional hate crime rooted in race, religion, or sexual orientation. So terror has a long history.

The second point I want to make is, in that long history, no terrorist campaign standing on its own has ever won, and conventional military strategies that have included terrorism with it have won because of conventional military power, and terrorism has normally been a negative. I will just give you one example from my childhood. In the Civil War, General Sherman waged a brilliant military campaign to cut through the South and go to Atlanta. It was significant and very helpful in bringing the Civil War to a close in a way to, thank God, save the Union. On the way, General Sherman practiced a relatively mild form of terrorism-he did not kill civilians, but he burned all the farms and then he burned Atlanta, trying to break the spirit of the Confederates. It had nothing whatever to do with winning the Civil War, but it was a story that was told for a hundred years later, and prevented America from coming together as we might otherwise have done. When I was a boy growing up in the segregated South, when we should have been thinking about how we were going to integrate the schools and give people equal opportunity, people were making excuses for unconscionable behavior by talking about what Sherman had done a hundred years ago. So, it is important to remember that normally terrorism has backfired and never has it succeeded on its own.

The third point I want to make is that offense always wins first. Ever since the first person walked out of a cave with a club and before people figured out you could put sticks together and stretch an animal skin over it and make it a shield, the people who take up arms win first, and then sooner or later, hopefully sooner, decent people get together and figure out how to defend themselves. When we were born, people thought there would never be a way to defend against continuing nuclear war and we would exterminate ourselves and we found the only known defense, which was mutually assured destruction, but it worked, and no bomb was ever dropped again after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

So this is troubling, this Anthrax business. I know it is, and it scares you. And it's troubling when 5,000 people die not in some far away battlefield, but in downtown New York on television. But you have to recognize that unless this is something different than has ever occurred in human history, we will figure out how to defend ourselves and civilization will endure. A lot of good people have been working hard on this for a long time. In the years that I served, career law enforcement officials working with our intelligence services and others and people around the world prevented many, many more terrorist attacks than were successful. Attempts to blow up the Holland tunnel, the Los Angeles airport, to blow up planes flying to the Philippines, an attempt on the Pope's life, an attempt to blow up the biggest hotel in Jordan over the Millennium weekend, to destroy a Christian site in the Holy Land, to plant bombs in cities in the Northwest and the Northeast, and many others. They worked hard to strengthen the biological weapons convention and to pass the chemical weapons convention. They worked hard to begin to build our stock of vaccines, and antibiotics and to support an organized civilian preparedness against the kind of problems we face in the current Anthrax scare. Clearly, we needed to do more. September the 11th happened. And so we are now about the business of improving our defenses with regard to air travel and other critical infrastructure, against attacks from biological weapons and in two other areas that I think are quite important. We need to strengthen our capacity to chase the money and get it, and we need some legislation on that, and we also need to continue to work on cyber-terrorism, which is profoundly important. So far we've just been laughing about some of these viruses that have invaded our computers and go all around the country in no time, but a great deal of damage could be done to our country unless we are prepared. And one area where we are woefully lacking is the simple use of modern computer technology to track people who come into this country with information already readily available. It does not require us to erode people's civil rights or human rights. But our governmental capacity, notwithstanding the fact that we have tripled our investment in counter-terrorism in the last few years, to do what is normally done by mass mailing firms, is not there. And we have to support this and we have to support the current government and whatever decision they make to do it, even if they have to contract with private companies for awhile, but we should be able to find people who come here and stay around a long time before they organize a big hit. So we will have to support all these things.

But the larger point I want to make is that we will do this, and for all of you who've never lived through anything like this, whose childhood was never colored by any kind of threat of security: when we were kids a lot of us used to have to do drills where we would go to fallout shelters where we would run if anybody ever dropped a nuclear weapon, and you learned to live with it. And the people that were taking care of us did a good job, and it never happened. So the first thing I want to say to you is you cannot be paralyzed by this. No terrorist strategy has ever prevailed, people who want to damage always win the beginning but people always figure out defenses. And the ultimate purpose of terrorism is not to win military victories anyway but to terrorize, to make you afraid to get up in the morning, afraid of the future, and afraid of each other. I met an Egyptian the first day I went down to see the people in the crisis center after September 11th. This big Egyptian fellow with tears in his eyes said, "I'm an Egyptian Muslim American, and I hate what happened worse than you do probably, and I'm so afraid my fellow American will never trust me again." That's what they want. So what I want to say to you first is, we have to support the war in Afghanistan and the work at home, and it may be frightening to you, but you have to stay centered, and you have to understand that you're trying to create something that is really special, a country where everybody can have a home if they share the same set of values. And you can't give in to it. It's going to be all right.

Now the second thing I want to say is, it's not enough to win the fight we're in. You've probably had some arguments on campus. If not, you've certainly read them, you've seen on television, there are a lot of people who just don't see the world the way we do and certainly don't see America in a very favorable light. And it is quite important that we do more to build the pool of potential partners in the world, and shrink the pool of potential terrorists. And that has nothing to do with the fight we're in. That has to do with what else we do, and that depends upon basically how you analyze the world. I've been going all over the world and I've been all over America going through this exercise so I'll take you through it.

Imagine yourself on September the 10th. Nothing's happened on September 11th. Try to remember how you viewed the world on September 10th. If I had asked you on that day, "What is the single most dominant element of the 21st Century world," what would your answer have been? What would you have said? Since you're living here and we've been doing reasonable well the last few years, I can think of one of four answers you might have given if you're a positive sort of person. You might have said, "Well, the global economy." The globalization of the economy is the most dominant element because it's made America 22 and a half million jobs and it's lifted more people out of poverty in the last thirty years than were ever lifted out in all of human history. Or you might have said, "No, it's the information technology revolution because that's what's given us all the productivity that has driven the economic growth. " When I became president in January of '93 there were only fifty sites on the worldwide web. When I left office there were 350 million. In eight years. Today, before the Anthrax scare, there were thirty times as many messages transmitted by email as the postal services every day in America. Or you might have said, "Oh, no, as impressive as those things are, the most significant thing about the early 21st century will be the advances in biological sciences." It will rival the significance of the discovery of DNA. It will rival the significance of Newtonian physics. We sequenced the human genome; we're developing microscopic testing mechanisms. Soon we'll be able to identify cancers when they're just a few cells in size. Soon we'll be able to give young mothers gene cards to take home with their newborn babies and in countries with good health systems, children will have life expectancies in excess of ninety years. Or you might have said, if you're like me and you're into politics and this kind of thing, you might have said, "No, the most important thing about the modern world is the growth of democracy and diversity, because that is the environment within which all the economic growth, all the technological growth, and all the scientific advances flourish best. I was honored to be president at the first time in history when more than half the world's people lived under governments of their own choosing, and when America, as witnessed by your presence here today, and other advanced countries became far more diverse racially, ethnically, and religiously than ever before, and the societies were actually working, and working better, and I might add, a lot more interesting because of our diversity. So, you could have said any of that.

On the other hand, if you live in a poor country or you are more pessimistic you might have answered one of four negative things. You could have said, "No, no, you got it wrong about the economy. Global poverty will dominate the early 21st century because half the world's people aren't in this global economy." They live on less than two dollars a day, a billion people live on less than a dollar a day, a billion and a half people never get a clean glass of water, and one woman dies every minute in childbirth. And that's a recipe for explosion, and that will dominate the world. Or you might have said, "No, before that happens, the environmental crises will consume us. The shortage of water, the deterioration of the oceans from which we get our oxygen, and most of all global warming. If the earth warms for the next 50 years at the rate of the last ten, we'll lose fifty feet of Manhattan Island. The Florida Everglades I worked so hard to save. Whole Pacific Island nations will be flooded, and tens of millions of food refugees will be created, destabilizing governments and causing violence. Or you could have said, "Well, no, before global warming gets us the epidemics will. All over the world public health systems are crashing down, and just to take AIDS as an example, there are now over 36 million AIDS cases, 22 million people have already died. If we don't turn the trend around there will be 100 million AIDS cases in five years, making it the worst epidemic since the Plague swept Europe in the 14th century and killed one in four people.

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