James B. Comey
Federal Bureau of Investigation
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Annual Dinner
Washington, D.C.
April 15, 2015

Holocaust Remembrance Week: Refusing to Let Evil Hold the Field

Remarks as delivered.

Good evening ladies and gentlemen. First, a word of congratulations to the remarkable people that you have honored here tonight. I am honored that you have invited me to share some thoughts with you this evening. I would like to explain to you why the FBI’s partnership with the Museum matters so very much. And I will be brief.

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I believe that the Holocaust is the most significant event in human history. And I mean “significant” in two different ways.

It is, of course, significant because it was the most horrific display in world history of inhumanity—one that simply defies words and challenges meaning. I was born into an Irish Catholic family in the New York area in this great, wonderful, and safe country, but the Holocaust has always haunted me and it has long stood as a stumbling block to faith.

How could such a thing be? How is that consistent with the concept of a loving God? How is that in any way reconcilable with the notion of a God with a role in human history? How could there possibly be meaning in life, when so many lives were snuffed out in such a fashion?

I have asked those questions since I was a young teenager. I have asked them my entire life.

I asked the same questions standing in the pit at Ground Zero in early 2002.

I have asked those questions many times as I have confronted unimaginable suffering and loss.

And I know I am in good company asking such questions. Last month, on a flight home from Eastern Europe, I re-read Viktor Frankl’s wrenching Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he seeks to find meaning in suffering and loving, among other things.

And going much farther back, back before I was a religious studies major in college, I recalled the voice from the whirlwind in the Book of Job, rebuking us for even asking the question “Why?” “How dare you!” the voice seems to say. “It is not for you to ask, it is not for you to know.”

And yet I ask, as so many of us do. And I still don’t know.

But I do know this: I know it is our duty, our obligation, to make sure some good comes from unimaginable bad. Not so we can comfort ourselves by saying, “Oh, that was worth it then.” That’s nonsense. That would be perverse. It will never be “worth it.”

Instead, I believe it is simply our duty to do that, and I believe this is truth no matter where you come from on a philosophical or religious spectrum. Our obligation is to refuse to let bad win, to refuse to let evil hold the field. As Abraham Lincoln said on a field of unimaginable pain and loss, it is essential “... that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.” Our resolution does not justify the loss, but we simply cannot be alive and give up.

There are so many ways to fight evil to ensure it doesn’t hold the field. This room is full of people who have made that fight their life’s work—to ensure that evil does not hold the field. They have made that fight their entire life.

Some by public service that involved actual physical battles against evil; others by different kinds of service, including the service of teaching a world what happened, teaching a world what is true.

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And part of what you have taught is the second reason I believe the Holocaust is the most significant event in world history.

It was, as I said, just a couple of minutes ago, the most horrific display in world history of inhumanity.

But it was also the most horrific display in world history of our humanity—of our capacity for evil and for moral surrender.

And that second significance is the reason I require every new FBI special agent and intelligence analyst go to the Museum. Naturally, I want them to learn about abuse of authority on a breathtaking scale. But I want them to confront something more painful and more dangerous: I want them to see humanity and what we are capable of.

I want them to see that although this slaughter was led by sick and evil people, those sick and evil leaders were joined by, and followed by, people who loved their families, took soup to a sick neighbor, went to church, and gave to charity.

Good people helped murder millions. And that’s the most frightening lesson of all—that our very humanity made us capable—even susceptible—of surrendering our individual moral authority to the group, where it can be hijacked by evil. Of being cowed by those in power of convincing ourselves of nearly anything.

In their minds, the murderers and accomplices of Germany, and Poland, and Hungary, and so many, many other places didn’t do something evil. They convinced themselves it was the right thing to do, the thing they had to do. That’s what people do. And that should truly frighten us.

That is why I send our agents and our analysts to the Museum. I want them to stare at us, and realize our capacity for rationalization and moral surrender. I want them to walk out of that great museum treasuring the constraint and oversight of divided government, the restriction of the rule of law, the binding of a free and vibrant press. I want them to understand that all of this is necessary as a check on us because of the way we are. We must build it, we must know it, and we must nurture it now, so that it can save us later. That is the only path to the responsible exercise of power.

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So my thanks to this room full of people who have chosen to devote their lives to ensuring that evil does not hold the field. And, on behalf of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, thank you for making us better.