James B. Comey
Federal Bureau of Investigation
Anti-Defamation League National Leadership Summit
Washington, D.C.
May 8, 2017

The FBI and the ADL: Working Together to Fight Hate

Remarks prepared for delivery.

I first met with you in the spring of 2014, when I was relatively new on the job—just seven months in.

I sang your praises as an organization that fights for inclusivity and diversity, equality and justice. An organization that works with us to fight hate crime and terrorism, to educate law enforcement, and to build bridges with underrepresented communities.

I labeled that last speech a love letter to the ADL. Three years later I can say, from the perspective of the FBI, we’re still in love with you.

But while we are really fond of you folks, I’ve got to be honest. We’ve spent more time with you of late than we would like. I think we’d all be happy if our meetings were few and far between—if we had no need to investigate hate crime, no need to share information about pending terrorist threats, no need to educate kids or community leaders or cops about bigotry and prejudice.

Instead, we’ve confronted bomb threats targeting Jewish community centers and schools. The vandalism of Jewish cemeteries. The racially motivated shooting of two Indian immigrants. Swastikas spray-painted on synagogues and subway signs. A transgender woman attacked in her own home. A noose sent in the mail to an African-American attorney.

In your line of work, and ours, we confront people who are filled with hate. Some of these individuals will sit quietly, simmering in their own bitterness. Some will shout about it to anyone who will listen, ever hopeful that just as like attracts like, hate will attract hate.

And while we can try to educate and illuminate our way out of that darkness, some will always be trapped in that “starless midnight” Martin Luther King wrote of so many years ago.

We have to ask ourselves: Are people emboldened by divisive rhetoric? Are there simply more opportunities to instill fear and intimidation than ever before?

Do the ways in which we now communicate—often anonymously or from a great distance—offer license to say whatever you want, whenever you want, no matter how hateful or discriminatory?

I’m on Twitter. I have to be, to hear what everyone’s saying about me. And it’s a depressing place. It’s like being in every dive bar in America, and you can hear everybody screaming at the television.

But that’s free speech. We don’t have to like it. We don’t have to agree with it. But we will protect it. Because it’s one of the greatest tenets of this country. That we can believe and say what we want, no matter how distasteful or disruptive.

But there are others more worrisome to everyone in this room. The ones who stop talking about who and what they hate so much, and start acting on it.

You know all too well that in a heartbeat, words can turn to violence. Because hate doesn’t remain static. An opinion, a dislike, a prejudice—it foments. It festers. It can grow into something far more dangerous. Sometimes, too often, hate becomes hate crime.

So we must do everything in our power to stop these individuals who move from hating to hurting.

Yes, we must do everything we can to educate people about diversity and the strength that comes from our differences.

But we must do everything in our power to bring those who act on such hatred to justice.

Hate crime is different from other crime. It strikes at the heart of one’s identity. It strikes 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 crime hurts more than just the victim. It harms the whole community. Because an attack on one of us because of who and what we are, what we believe, or what we look like is an attack on all of us.

And we must each accept the responsibility to speak up and stop it. Because, eventually—if we don’t—it will come for all of us.

* * *

I want to talk about how you help us. I believe 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 of inhumanity—one that simply defies words and challenges meaning.

How could such a thing happen?

How is it consistent with the concept of a loving God?

How could there be meaning in life, when so many lives were snuffed out in such a way?

I asked those same questions standing in the pit at Ground Zero in early 2002 and studying the history of slavery in America. I have asked those questions many times as I have confronted unimaginable suffering and loss.

And standing here today, I know I am in good company.

The answer is, I don’t know. We don’t know.

But we do know that it is our duty, our obligation, to make sure some good comes from unimaginable bad. This is our duty regardless of race or religion or ideology. It is our obligation to refuse to let darkness win. To refuse to let evil hold the field.

There are so many ways to fight this darkness. This room is full of them. For you have made that fight your entire life.

I also believe the Holocaust was the most significant event in history not just because it was a display of inhumanity, but because it was also the most horrific display of our humanity—our true capacity for evil and for moral surrender.

And that second significance is the reason we require every new FBI special agent and intelligence analyst in training to visit the Holocaust Museum. We want them to learn about abuse of power on a breathtaking scale.

But I want them to confront something more painful and more frightening: I want them to see humanity. I want them to see 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, who took soup to sick neighbors. People who went to church and gave to charity. I said something similar a couple years ago and named countries, which caused a distraction, although true.

Because the point is that good people helped murder millions. And that’s the most frightening lesson of all. That our very humanity made us capable of convincing ourselves that this was the right thing to do. And that should frighten all of us.

That is why I send our agents and 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.

It is also the reason why we now require every new agent and analyst in training to study the FBI’s interactions with Dr. King. And it’s why as part of that curriculum they must visit the Martin Luther King Memorial.

I am the seventh Director of the FBI, and I sit at the same desk all the past Directors have sat at, and it has glass on it, so I don’t ruin it. On the right corner of that desk, under the glass, I have a single piece of paper. It’s a memo from J. Edgar Hoover to Attorney General Bobby Kennedy. And the memo asked for permission to bug Dr. King.

It’s five sentences long. It’s utterly devoid of factual content. It simply asserts “there’s a communist influence in the racial situation.”

There’s no date limitation. No geographic limitation. It simply says, we need to wiretap this guy. Director Hoover signed the request, Bobby Kennedy signed the request, and we were off to the races.

But here’s the hard part.

I have no doubt that those two men believed they were doing the right thing. They were certain their cause was just and their facts were right.

And in the absence of constraint and oversight, there was no one to tell them otherwise.

I keep that piece of paper there in that spot to remind me of what we in the FBI are responsible for. I keep it as a reminder of what we as humans are capable of, and why it is vital that power be overseen and constrained and checked.

We put these sessions at the beginning of the training program for agents and analysts. And the reason we start their education with this experience is because it is foundational to who and what we are, as an institution. It is the basis of who and what we are to the American people.

Learning the law and how to shoot are hard and important things. But it’s much harder and more important to understand and really internalize the long-term ramifications of prejudice and bigotry. It is much harder to fight against unconscious bias and the sting of subtle racism.

These are more than just lessons to be learned. They are living principles that must be engrained into everything we do, part of every decision we make.

We must build this deep understanding. We must know it. We must nurture it now, so that it can save us later.

* * *

We are not only educating ourselves, we are working with the ADL to build bridges in the communities we serve.

We are listening to people’s concerns, and letting them know how we can help. And we are creating a sense of trust and solidarity, so they know they can call us and count on us to protect them.

We want them to know that when we can’t prevent a hate crime, our agents and analysts will move heaven and earth to find those responsible.

And our victim specialists will do everything they can to help heal the victims, their families, and their communities.

They will explain what the agents need to do, and why. They will de-mystify the legal process.

They will host town halls for frightened citizens. They will clean up crime scenes, plan funerals, find counseling, and wipe away tears.

They will carry this weight on their incredibly strong shoulders, for people who are living their worst nightmare.

Because we aren’t just law enforcement. We are part of the community. We are in this together.

We understand that some of these communities may not trust law enforcement. They may not believe the police have their best interests at heart.

And that’s something we in law enforcement have to confront. It’s something we have to understand, deep down. And it’s something we have to change.

Everyone in this room knows that officers and deputies and agents joined law enforcement to do good, to help others. To serve the people who live in their communities—whatever race, nationality, religion, gender, or sexual orientation they may be. They signed up to serve all of the people, all of the time.

But we need to do a better job of knowing our neighborhoods with the greatest need for police. We need to know the people who live there—the challenges they confront, the fears they face.

As law enforcement officers, we especially need a full understanding of the history and journey of black America. The hopes, the dreams, the disappointments, and the pain. We need to know the history of law enforcement’s interaction with black America, because black people can’t forget it.

We need to know what’s happening in our communities. Not what we think is happening, or what the people we serve think is happening, but what is really happening.

For that, we need more and better information.

Data is a dry word. And people tend to tune out when you start talking about it, but it’s important, because it gives us the full picture of what’s happening. It’s what smart people use to make good decisions.

I’ve been pressing for more data for two years now. Data related to violent crime and homicides. Data related to officer-involved shootings, altercations with the citizens we serve, and attacks against law enforcement officers. And yes, data related to hate crime.

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.

Some jurisdictions don’t report hate crime. Some 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 the need to track and report hate crime. It’s not something we can ignore or sweep under the rug.

Lastly, we need to know and believe in good policing. We need to live it.

Because up-close, respectful, disciplined, firm, fair, lawful, and transparent law enforcement is what has always worked best, in every neighborhood. And African-Americans, like all Americans, want good policing because they know it’s the path to safety and prosperity.

We have to stand together. Law enforcement, advocates like the ADL, community groups, and people from every walk of life.

We have to work together to recognize ourselves in one other. Perhaps the reason we struggle as a nation is because we have come to see only what we represent, at face value, instead of who we really are.

I have long believed that it’s hard to hate up close. It’s hard to hate someone when you know their story. It is long past time we started learning each other’s stories.

* * *

I was in Orlando last June after the attack on the Pulse nightclub. I wanted to meet privately with the first responders, to thank them for what they had done.

We met in a big church and after I thanked them, I said I would take a few questions. An officer stood up in uniform, and he said, “My name is Menachim Green, and I’m Jewish.” And this confused me at first.

And then he went on. He said, “I was there that night. And I ran toward the sound of that gunfire and running next to me was a Muslim officer. We were Jew and Muslim and Christian. We were white and black and Latino and Asian. We were rushing to danger to help people we did not know. We didn’t know what they looked like. We didn’t know what they believed. We didn’t know anything about them except they were people who needed us. I wanted you to know that.”

He said, “I think the American people should know that.” And then he sat down.

And afterward another officer came up to me sheepishly and said, “I’m the Muslim guy. That’s a true story.”

And I said, “I’m going to tell that story all over this country because I know it. And the American people should know it.”

We confront divisiveness. We confront fear and ignorance and prejudice. We live in a world with an abundance of coarseness and a lack of civility. And as a society, we have to do better.

Police officers of different faiths, from different backgrounds, running toward danger, to help strangers.

That makes us better.

Muslim activists who raised more than $100,000 to repair Jewish headstones vandalized in St. Louis and Philadelphia.

That makes us better.

Good Samaritans who repainted a neighbor’s vandalized home so they would never have to see the hateful slurs.

A defaced sign of a Spanish-language church covered with “Love Wins” posters by local clergy.

A lawn sign that reads, “Whoever you are, and wherever you’re from, you are welcome here.”

Stories like these make us better.

You make us better.

For more than 100 years, 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 vocabulary.

You have advocated for voting rights and immigration issues. You have fought against anti-Muslim prejudice and cyber bullying.

You have stood up for LGBT and gender equality. You have pushed and prodded for hate crime legislation. And you have helped us identify and track domestic and international terrorist threats.

And for all of that, we are grateful. As a law enforcement and national security agency, yes. But also as Americans. As humans.

My thanks to this room full of people who have chosen to devote their lives to ensuring that evil does not hold the field. To Jonathan Greenblatt and David Friedman and Michael Lieberman, and everyone who is part of this important work.

And on behalf of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, thank you for standing by us, for giving us the benefit of your experience, and for making us better.

And so I close my letter,