- James B. Comey
- Federal Bureau of Investigation
- Anti-Defamation League National Leadership Summit
- Washington, D.C.
- April 28, 2014
Remarks prepared for delivery. | Video of remarks
Good afternoon. It is an honor to be here.
Two weeks ago, a madman with a warped view of what America should look like shot and killed three innocent people who were just doing what normal folks do on a Sunday afternoon.
He targeted individuals who were strangers to him, for no other reason than that he believed they were Jewish.
Mindy Corporon lost both her father and her son that day—a loss most of us cannot begin to fathom. At a church vigil just hours after the shooting, she talked about the randomness of what had happened, how her father had offered to take his grandson to a singing competition while the rest of the family juggled other activities.
In her words, “We were in life; we were having life. And I want you all to know that we’re going to have more life, and I want you all to have more life.”
The loss of these three people—the loss to their families, their friends, and their communities—underscores the reality we face. We confront individuals, here at home and abroad, who seek to steal life. They seek to inflict great harm, and no one is immune. No race, no religion, no ethnicity, no way of life.
And so we must do everything in our power—in government, in law enforcement, and in society—to stop them. We must do everything in our power to educate people about diversity and the strength that comes from our differences. And we must do everything in our power to bring those who act on such hatred to justice.
You are well versed in the threats of the day, but let me take a moment to define the terrorist threat from the FBI’s perspective.
As you know, national security is our top priority, and that isn’t likely to change. Overseas, the terrorist threat is complex and ever changing. We are seeing more groups and individuals engaged in terrorism, a wider array of targets, greater cooperation among terrorist groups, and continued evolution in tactics and communication.
Al Qaeda central isn’t the dominant force it once was, but they remain intent on causing death and destruction. Al Qaeda affiliates continue to present a top threat—al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and ISIL—the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant—among others. We also have citizens traveling overseas—especially to Syria—and radicalizing there, and then coming home. And they are traveling from all over the United States to all parts of the world.
As the Boston bombings illustrate, we face a continuing threat from homegrown violent extremists. Some call these individuals “lone wolves,” but I think that gives them too much dignity. I like to think of them as “lone rats.”
These individuals are self-radicalizing. They do not share a typical profile; their experiences and motives are often distinct. They are willing to act alone, which makes them difficult to identify and stop. This is not just a D.C., New York, or Los Angeles phenomenon; it is agnostic as to place.
We also face domestic terrorism from individuals and groups who are motivated by political, racial, religious, or social ideology—ideology fueled by bigotry and prejudice—as we saw in Overland Park, Kansas.
We in the FBI have a strong working knowledge of these groups and their general membership. Here, too, it’s the lone offenders that trouble us. They stand on the periphery. We may not know of them because their actions do not predicate an investigation.
Most of the time, domestic extremists are careful to keep their actions within the bounds of constitutionally protected activity. And for the FBI, protecting those civil liberties—such as freedom of speech—is of paramount importance, no matter how hateful that speech might be. We only get involved when words cross the line into illegal activity.
You help us police that line. You know all too well that in a heartbeat, hateful speech can become violent, even deadly. Hate becomes hate crime.
We often speak of domestic terrorism and hate crimes in the same breath, and there is a fine line between the two, and certainly overlap in some cases. For that reason, we must look at each incident through both lenses, to make sure that we bring the best resources to every investigation.
Hate crimes are different from other crimes. They strike at the heart of one’s identity—they strike at our sense of self, our sense of belonging. The end result is loss—loss of trust, loss of dignity, and in the worst case, loss of life.
Hate crimes impact not just individuals, but entire communities. When a family is attacked because of the color of their skin, it’s not just the family that feels violated, but every resident of that neighborhood. When a teenager is murdered because he is gay, the entire community feels a sense of helplessness and despair. And when innocent people are shot at random because of their religious beliefs—real or perceived—our nation is left at a loss.
Stories like this are heartbreaking. They leave each one of us with a pain in our chest. Hate crime has decreased in neighborhoods across the country, but the national numbers remain sobering. And numbers are only one part of the calculus. From the FBI’s perspective—and yours—even one hate crime is one too many.
At the same time, we need to do a better job of tracking and reporting hate crime to fully understand what is happening in our communities and how to stop it. There are jurisdictions that fail to report hate crime statistics. Other jurisdictions claim there were no hate crimes in their community—a fact that would be welcome if true. We must continue to impress upon our state and local counterparts in every jurisdiction the need to track and report hate crime. It is not something we can ignore or sweep under the rug.
We must also work together to educate folks—at the community level, in schools, in workplaces, and yes, in law enforcement—to help prevent hate crime.
The FBI works with the ADL to host civil rights and hate crime training for our state and local counterparts through a number of programs. We have made Law Enforcement and Society training mandatory for all National Academy participants, just as it is for all new agents. Together, we created the Hate Crimes Training Manual—a fantastic resource for our law enforcement partners across the country.
And the ADL, of course, has even greater reach; you trained more than 12,000 law enforcement personnel last year alone, and I want to thank you for that. This past January, your North Texas/Oklahoma office worked with the FBI’s Dallas Division to sponsor a one-day seminar for more than 160 federal, state, and local law enforcement officers from 40 different agencies.
And of course, we are educating ourselves, too. Since 2010, FBI employees have participated in more than 105 training sessions sponsored by the ADL on extremism, terrorism, and hate crimes, in 17 states and here in the District. Your own Michael Lieberman, director of the Civil Rights Planning Center, will speak at an FBI civil rights conference in Boston on May 13, and in San Francisco in June.
Prevention also means working closely with community groups and their leaders. It means listening to their concerns and letting them know what we can do to help. And it means building relationships of trust so they know they can call us and count on us to protect them.
Every one of our 56 field offices has a strong community outreach program. We are reaching out to communities where there may be feelings of suspicion or mistrust. As the saying goes, the time to patch the roof is when the sun is shining. Not when the hurricane hits.
And when we cannot prevent a hate crime, we will do everything we can to find those responsible and to help heal the victims, their families, and their communities.
The FBI’s Office for Victim Assistance offers a wide range of services, including emergency housing and food assistance, cleaning of personal effects and crime scenes, help in applying for victims’ compensation, special services for children, and assistance in finding counseling.
For the wider community, victim specialists have met with congregations and neighborhoods to help cope with the aftermath of a hate crime. They have helped churches, synagogues, and temples damaged by arson to find temporary meeting space. In times of crisis, they provide much-needed information and guidance for all affected groups.
In the wake of the shootings at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin, for example, victim specialists assisted with death notifications and funeral arrangements, in keeping with the Sikh tradition. They made arrangements for family members to travel to the United States and coordinated with the State Department for expedited visas. They translated brochures and important documents. And they identified culturally appropriate mental health resources for the victims, their families, and others impacted by the attack.
These diverse challenges illustrate the need for true collaboration. Over the years, the partnership between the FBI and the ADL has grown stronger. Yes, we serve different functions, but we share common values and common goals. We both work to protect the lives and liberties of our fellow citizens. We are both building communities that stand united against crime and terrorism. And we are both committed to promoting and defending freedom.
Not freedom in some esoteric sense—but freedom to walk down the street without being harmed…freedom to ride the subway without being endangered…freedom to be who and what you are, without judgment or derision. These are the freedoms we all cherish, regardless of race, creed, orientation, or ethnicity.
Yet freedom takes work. It takes vigilance. And it takes patience. And when you are trying to change the world—when you imagine a world without hate, as you do—patience is more than a virtue. It is a necessity.
Last year, the ADL marked its centennial. For any organization to mark 100 years of service is incredible. But to do so with such a record of success is doubly impressive. Your advocacy for such a wide range of issues and constituents is nothing short of amazing, from anti-Semitism to voting rights and immigration issues…from gender and LGBT equality to anti-Muslim prejudice…from the separation of church and state to cyber-bullying.
You pushed and prodded for the passage of comprehensive hate crimes legislation. It took more than 30 years, but as I said, patience is a necessity in your line of work.
Your leadership in tracking and exposing domestic and international terrorist threats is invaluable. Your experience in hate crime prevention and investigations is essential. Your research has helped agents and analysts as they conduct threat assessments and prepare intelligence reports. And the training you voluntarily provide—at conferences, in classrooms, and at the community level—is eye-opening and insightful.
If this sounds a bit like a love letter to the ADL, it is, and rightly so. Since 1913, you have advocated for fairness and equality. For inclusion and acceptance. You have never been indifferent or complacent. And the word “silence” simply isn’t part of your language.
Upon accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, Elie Wiesel spoke of the danger of silence. He said, “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endured suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
You have never remained silent, no matter how difficult the issue. We in the FBI believe the same. We must never remain silent, no matter how difficult the case…no matter how long it takes to seek justice. And, like you, we must always, always side with the good.
That is why all new agents tour the Holocaust Museum, so that they can see and hear and feel—in a palpable, nauseating, and gut-wrenching way—the consequences of the abuse of power on a massive scale. I will continue this practice as we resume new agent classes at Quantico. For just as we must never forget the atrocities of the Holocaust, we must never forget the responsibilities we hold as a law enforcement and national security organization.
But I will also have our new agents visit the Martin Luther King memorial. I think it will serve as a different kind of reminder—one more personal to the Bureau—of the need for fidelity to the rule of law and the dangers in becoming untethered to oversight and accountability. For we know that we will be judged not only on whether we succeed in defeating crime and terrorism. We will be judged on whether we do so while safeguarding the liberties for which we are fighting.
Some have suggested that there is an inherent conflict between protecting national security, on the one hand, and preserving privacy and civil liberties, on the other hand. I disagree. In fact, I think the ideas of “balance” and “trade-offs” are the wrong framework, because they make it seem like a zero-sum game. At our best, we are looking for security that enhances liberty. When a city posts police officers at a dangerous park so that kids and families and old folks can use the park, security has promoted liberty.
The good people of the FBI are sworn to protect both national security and civil liberties. It is not a question of conflict. We must care deeply about both—in every investigation and every program.
I had the opportunity to host the FBI’s Holocaust Remembrance Ceremony two weeks ago, and one of the stories I have heard about that day stuck with me. One of our special agents was talking to his wife about the event, and his 10-year-old son asked what the Holocaust was. This father did his best to explain what had happened, but how do you describe, to a child, an atrocity so great it is almost beyond the ability of words? Through it all, his son had a confused look on his face. Finally, he said, “But why? Why would they do that?”
And that is the question. It is always the question. Why? Why would someone seek to harm another person simply because of the color of their skin, what they look like, where they come from, or what they believe?
We may never know why. Reinhold Niebuhr suggested years ago that prejudice and bigotry are not simply mistakes that can be corrected through education or enlightenment. Hatred is not merely an error that can be dispelled by an appeal to rational thought.
But some “whys” can be known. We certainly know why we in the FBI must dedicate ourselves to protecting those who would be victims of such prejudice. We know why the members of the ADL work so very hard, each and every day, to advocate for those who suffer from the effects of such deep-seated hatred. And we know why we must continue to stand together to stop those who would act against us—those who would seek to steal life.
To paraphrase the words of Dr. Martin Luther King: When evil people plot, good people must plan. When evil people burn and bomb, good people must build and bind. When evil people shout ugly words of hatred, good people must commit themselves to the glories of love.
Together, we must plan. We must build and bind our communities and our country. And we must commit ourselves to the glories of love through education, a commitment to diversity and inclusion, the pursuit of justice, and adherence to the rule of law.
We must remember that for every attack on someone because of who and what they are, there are a thousand stories of individuals who banded together to build anew, to create rather than destroy. A thousand stories of strength and solidarity, of hope and unity, of kindness and kinship.
This is why we do the work we do. This is why we continue to push forward. This is why we must never be indifferent or complacent, why we must never remain silent.
Thank you for all that you do. We are honored to stand beside you.