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Fighting Terrorism and Protecting Individual Rights: The Challenge of Our Time

Friday, December 6, 2002

Fighting Terrorism and Protecting Individual Rights: The Challenge of Our Time

Statement from the Metropolitan Police Department

Charles H. Ramsey
Chief of Police
Metropolitan Police Department

Chief Charles H. Ramsey delivered the following speech to the Bar Association of the District of Columbia at its 131st Annual Banquet on December 6, 2002.

Thank you and good evening. It is indeed an honor to be with the leadership and members of the DC Bar. The fact that this is your 131st Annual Banquet is a testament to the strength of the DC Bar. In this town, for an entity to last 131 days – let alone, 131 years – is truly remarkable. And I want to congratulate all of you, not just on your longevity, but on your relevancy and your service to our community. I would like to publicly acknowledge Robert Weinberg, and all of the trustees of your Charitable Foundation, for your support of pro bono work and legal education efforts in our city. In our collective search for truth and justice under the rule of law, the services that you support are indispensable. So thank you very much. And finally, I want to congratulate tonight’s award winners. Speaking for all of the men and women of the Metropolitan Police Department, we are grateful for your service to our community, and I am honored to share this podium with you this evening.

When Bill Lawler invited me to speak tonight, he indicated that I would be the first non-lawyer in a long, long time to address this banquet. So I guess that means I should probably not use any of those “lawyer jokes” that I have been saving up. Don't worry about it. After you have endured years of “cops-and-donut jokes, you learn to deal with just about anything. But when you stop and think about it, it really makes a lot of sense for the law enforcement and legal communities to come together this night – and every day and night of the year. As I alluded to earlier, all of us – judges, civil attorneys, prosecutors, members of the defense bar, police officers – all of us share the same fundamental mission, the same basic goal. And that is the search for truth and justice in our city.

Sometimes, we may end up on different sides of the courtroom – sometimes, we’re on the same side. But at all times, every one of us has made a commitment to uphold the Constitution, to provide justice, and to preserve freedom. And I am very proud to consider all of you as partners in this noble and enduring cause. Tonight, I would suggest that at no time in our nation’s history is our collective commitment to justice and freedom more crucial than it is right now. And I would also offer that at no place is this commitment more visible, more scrutinized and more essential than right here in the District of Columbia – our nation’s capital, and the cradle of democracy for the free world. We are at a truly unique and momentous time in our history. I don’t have to lecture any of you about that.

The threat of terrorism – to our city and to our nation – is very, very real. No one believes that the tragedy of September 11th was a “one-time event” – nor should we believe that. The threat we face is very real, and it is very dangerous. And the need to neutralize that threat – and to defeat those enemies who would brutally attack us, on our soil once again – must be the “Number One” priority of our government and our people. No one disputes that. But how do we wage the war on terrorism – and win the war on terrorism – while also managing to maintain and protect the individual rights of our people? How do we achieve that? How do we strike the balance between carrying out a vigorous war against a largely clandestine enemy, while being equally vigorous in preserving the very rights that define us as Americans?

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the unique – and the uniquely monumental – challenge of our time and of our professions.
Fifteen months after the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, it is interesting – and, I think, quite useful – to look back on our reaction and response to the crisis. No one can forget the tremendous pride and patriotism that immediately followed 9-11. I had the opportunity to visit “Ground Zero” several days after the attacks, and I was truly amazed by the outpouring of affection and support that everyday people showed for their police officers, firefighters and emergency medical personnel. And I am pleased that much of that newly re-kindled appreciation for our first responders continues to this day.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the unique – and the uniquely monumental – challenge of our time and of our professions. Fifteen months after the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, it is interesting – and, I think, quite useful – to look back on our reaction and response to the crisis. No one can forget the tremendous pride and patriotism that immediately followed 9-11. I had the opportunity to visit “Ground Zero” several days after the attacks, and I was truly amazed by the outpouring of affection and support that everyday people showed for their police officers, firefighters and emergency medical personnel. And I am pleased that much of that newly re-kindled appreciation for our first responders continues to this day.

But I think it is also useful to look at some of the other responses. Some, of course, were downright ugly and brutal, such as the spike in hate crimes targeting Muslims and other groups that occurred in various locations across the country. Other responses were puzzling, some might say, even alarming. For example, several opinion polls over the past year have indicated that many Americans are willing to sacrifice some of their privacy and other protections, if such steps can aid the war on terrorism. The events of 9-11, and, more recently, the “sniper shootings” in our area, seems to reveal a tendency for people to “rush to judgment” when faced with a crisis.

In the sniper case, the arrests of John Muhammed and John Lee Malvo prompted an immediate and very heated discussion of where the suspects could be executed the quickest. Now … without getting into the specifics of the case, I am very confident that police and prosecutors have built a very solid case against the two suspects. But we, as a community, almost seemed to forget that Mr. Muhammed and Mr. Malvo are innocent until proven guilty, and that before we can begin talking about punishment, we need to provide them with a fair and speedy trial in the court of law. This tendency to “rush to judgment” is natural. I understand it … and probably engage in it myself from time to time. But when we are talking about something as important and fundamental as our individual rights and freedoms, then all of us need to be very careful and very thoughtful about the decisions we make.

As we continue to wage the war on terrorism, there is probably one thing – above all else – that Americans want. And that is to bring back the relative feeling of safety and security that we enjoyed prior to September 11th. As chief of police, I know first-hand that this remains a priority – especially for our residents and workers here in DC. But I also realize that, in reality, we will probably never be able to re-capture that sense of security, that innocence that we all lost on 9-11.

Our national leaders are doing everything they can to wage an effective war on terrorism and to secure our homeland. And locally here in DC, we have taken a number of steps to improve our own preparedness, and enhance our response to any future attacks. But the harsh reality is that we can offer no guarantees in terms of safety and security. But even in these uncertain times, there is one assurance that we can provide our people, and it is this: we do not have to sacrifice our individual rights and freedoms in order to increase our feelings of safety and security. Quite the contrary, in fact. I would argue that protecting our basic individual freedoms is a vital and essential element of the fight against terrorism.

If one of the goals of terrorists is to fundamentally change our way of life, then what better way to achieve that goal, than to try and undermine the very democratic principles and values that we Americans hold so dearly? We simply cannot discard who we are – and what we stand for as Americans – in the hope of safety or security. British author William Somerset Maugham (MAHM) put it far more eloquently: “If a nation values anything more than freedom, it will lose its freedom.” And, I would argue, if we lose our freedom, then we lose all hope of safety and security as well.

History teaches us important lessons in this regard. And one chapter of history that I have focused the Police Department’s attention on, is the Holocaust. As some of you may know, a few years ago, I started a program in which every new recruit officer in the MPD – as well as all experienced officers and executives – spends one day in training at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The purpose of the training is not just to examine the rise of the Nazi regime and the horrors of the Holocaust. It is to understand the role of the police during that truly awful and inhumane era.

At the beginning of the course, some of our officers don’t really know what to make of it. But by the end of the day, most emerge not only with a new understanding of what occurred in Europe 60 years ago, but also what could possibly occur in the future if we, in law enforcement and society as a whole, do not stand up for individual rights and freedoms. One of the things our officers learn is how quickly things began to spiral out of control in Nazi Germany – from individual classification systems, to business boycotts, book burnings, imprisonment and, eventually, mass murder, targeting not only Jews, but also gays and lesbians, the mentally ill, the physically handicapped, the “Roma” and many, many others. And as individual rights began to be eroded, that society very quickly became something that almost no one could have ever imagined.

In example after example, history has taught us that once individual rights are taken away, they are very rarely given back, or they are given back only following a tremendous upheaval – in the case of the Holocaust, a World War. I am not suggesting that our current situation in any way resembles what occurred during the Nazi rise to power. Rather, I bring up the Holocaust as a vivid reminder of the precious freedoms that we, as Americans, enjoy, and the unique role that law enforcement and the legal system play in upholding and preserving those freedoms. As I tell our officers time and time again, if individual rights are challenged or basic freedoms are threatened, we need to be the very first ones to stand up and be counted. It’s a lesson that all of us need to remember.

And that is really my message this evening. That “common commitment” between police and lawyers that I spoke of earlier – that commitment to truth and justice – will be tested in the months and years ahead, as our country continues with an unprecedented war on terrorism, while striving to maintaining individual rights and liberties. Who better than all of us in this room – and all of our colleagues in law enforcement and the legal profession – to strike and maintain the balance that we must now achieve? We have not only the unique training and skills that are needed. We have the moral authority – contained in our respective oaths of office – to make sure it happens.

We stand at a crossroads in our history. And I don’t think I exaggerate when I say that the United States of the future will be determined, in large measure, by how we respond to the challenges of today. The decisions we make with respect to individual rights and freedom will affect not only ourselves and our children, but generations and generations to come. We face a daunting challenge in the months and years ahead, but also an amazing opportunity – a chance to prove to ourselves and to the rest of the world that we can wage a vigorous (and victorious) war on terrorism, while at the same time preserving the freedoms and protecting the democratic values that generations before us worked so hard to establish.

Success will not be achieved by any one individual or any one profession. It will be achieved by collective will and collective action. Or, as American patriot Thomas Paine put it – “Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must undergo the fatigue of supporting it.” I think all Americans – but especially those in our respective professions – stand ready to take up the charge.

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for allowing me to share these thoughts with you this evening. And thank you for the outstanding work you continue to perform in our community. May God bless all of you.