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Patrick Fitzgerald - Knox College Commencement Address

Transcript of remarks to graduating seniors at Knox College, June 6, 2009

June 06, 2009

Commencement Address by Patrick Fitzgerald, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois

President Taylor, Trustees, Distinguished Faculty, and most important, the students graduating here today

[Rain begins]

Timing is everything... and your family and friends.

Patrick FitzgeraldI'm truly honored and humbled to be able to speak to you today and to receive a degree I didn't earn, but I will certainly treasure from such a great institution, with a storied history. I'd like to think back to where I was when I graduated in 1982, and think about how the world has changed and how my view of the world has changed. I wanted to share with you two thoughts that took a long time to get into my head, so maybe I can get them into yours a little quicker.

The first thought that I'd like to bring home to you is that sometimes people think of public service as sacrifice. You should never think of it that way. It may cause you not to engage in public service and, thereby, cheat yourself. Let me explain what I mean.

Way back when I was graduating from college, if someone talked to me about public service, I thought it was a really great thing. But what I'd mean by that was it was a great thing for somebody else to do. So, when I heard about somebody joining the Peace Corps, and going off to war-torn places, or places with disease and poverty, and making a difference. I thought that was great. If someone was willing to sign up, and put on a uniform, and put their life on the line to defend our country, I thought that was great. And if somebody wanted to go and teach in an inner-city school to make life better for people, I thought that was great. I just had other plans for myself. And part of it was a pretty simplistic view of the world.

There was a professor who talked about the difference between doing good and doing well. So I had this simplistic notion that you had one door to choose from out of the two: Those people who went through the door that said, "Doing Good," did great things. And other people who went through the door that said, "Do Well," had a very profitable life. And it was understandable that I would think that way -- and some of you might want to think that way -- because my parents were immigrants.

I know a lot of you are first generation to go to college - as I was. My parents grew up on a farm, left Ireland and came here for a better life. And when you finally graduate from college....

[Rain intensifies] I should have worn the hat....

When you finally graduate from college, you think, I should take that opportunity. And what I learned, over the course of time, is that was a mistaken way of looking at things..... I'll shorten my remarks, too....

One of the things I did as an intern, was I worked at the Boston U.S. Attorney's office and saw some great work by people. They were working on motorcycle gangs, people running guns for the IRA. I actually ran into a Mafioso--walking into court trying to bring some research to a prosecutor--and didn't know who I nearly knocked over. And I thought, "this is a great job." I thought to myself, if I came back in a different life, with an inheritance or I hit the lottery, then I would go do that great job. Why would I do something that didn't pay the most I could possibly earn? And after a few years of private practice, I decided to join the U.S. Attorney's office in New York. And from that moment forward, I've been a prosecutor for 21 years - and not one day has been sacrifice.

One of the things I got to work on was a case involving the Mafia. It was hard work, and we spent six months in the courtroom with people who are members of the Gambino crime family, who were engaged in a plot to ship hundreds and hundreds of pounds of heroin from Sicily to the U.S., and hundreds and hundreds of pounds of cocaine from South America to the U.S. And they were involved in killing people, bribing jurors, breaking people out of jail. It was something out of a movie.

Well, that was hard work, but it wasn't sacrifice. I got an insight to sort of see how people thought, and appreciated how the criminal mind began to work, and realized that even people even in a group as violent as the Cosa Nostra - which is what they called themselves - had a sort of code in how they behaved. They had a rigid set of rules that they thought made sense. And, in fact, when they took an oath, they called themselves men of honor. And from what little I've read about your Honor Code, I think their honor code was very different. Certainly, they had different sanctions.

But it was something that made me start thinking about why people do the things they do - for good or for evil. And later on, I began to work on a case with a team that -- we spent nine months in a courtroom with people who basically wanted to blow up New York City. They were involved with the World Trade Center bombers in 1993, and they wanted to blow up bridges and tunnels. And after that experience, I began to work on case with other people involving Osama bin Laden, back before we really knew who he was - back before he made himself famous by doing horrible things.

And in the summer of 1998, when two embassies were bombed, I had the privilege to go overseas with a team of people, and watch how people responded, and watch how ordinary civilians and others were climbing through rubble to save lives. As a result of that experience, I began to think more and more about how people think. I used to think when I was in college -- when you studied philosophy or political science, you think, this is really interesting to think about how people think. But, at the end of the day, how much difference does that make in the real world? Thinking about thinking doesn't seem all that relevant.

Then I began to realize that how people think, and what their ideology is, and how they view the world can be a very, very powerful force -- for good or for evil. And one of the things that we saw after bombings was a remarkable sort of dual investigation. You would see a forensic, a physical investigation, where people would dig through craters. They'd look for the smallest pieces of metal -- that had markings on them, that would show they were very close to the bomb blast. They would know that this was part of the vehicle that contained the bomb. They would work tirelessly to find more pieces and put them together and figure out which car part it was. And from that, they would work back and figure out what type of car it was. And they'd work harder, and they'd figure out the exact car, the specific car that was used to carry the bomb. And then they could figure out where the car was parked, which direction it faced, what the bomb was made of, and how it was set off. And you'd see this remarkable science showing where the ignition went to the chaos.

And at the same time, we do a forensics of the mind. We would go through the thoughts of the people who carried out this evil deed, and realize what it was that set them off - what it was set off in someone's mind that convinced them that this was a good thing to do, and how it evolved. I had the privilege to work with a great team, and we had the opportunity to sit down with people who sat in the room with Osama bin Laden, and watched how his mindset evolved from a hatred of the Soviet Union to a hatred of the West, and the U.S. -- and how rhetoric went to violence -- and how violence against military went to violence against civilians. And those experiences -- all those things were horrible things that I wish never happened. But if I had thought public service was sacrifice, and didn't have a chance to involve myself in part of that response, and see what it was all about, and learn from it, I would have cheated myself more than anyone else.

When I moved to Chicago, my experience was very different. I was in the courtroom a lot less, and responsible for working with lots of hard working people that you never hear about. They work on cases that you hear less about than you should. I'll give you one example.

An awful lot of people work very, very hard to combat the problem of drugs, gangs and violence in the inner cities. And you hear about it, but you don't hear about it enough, because it's a real problem. We hear about it in Chicago when, in the last year, a number of school-age children are killed. Or, like today, when a Chicago police officer is being buried as we speak, giving his life fighting for a community. And it makes you think, there's an awful lot of people doing an awful lot of work. What a privilege it is to work with them and see what they do. So, for any of you out there - and I know I'm preaching to the choir to an awful lot of you - for any of you who want to go out and do something very, very important, and help others. If any of you are sort of thinking the way I was - that public service just means sacrifice. It's never a sacrifice. It's a luxury to be able to do what it is that you like to do.

Let me just briefly turn to the second point. The second point is that sometimes I think we give public servants - and particularly law enforcement - too much credit. And there's a danger in that. And the reason there's a danger in that is that we take away some of the responsibility society has to deal with larger problems. If you give someone else credit, you give them responsibility. And in a subtle way, society can walk away from some of the things we need to address. And I'll make that concrete.

In the areas of violence and drugs and gangs, we can put it in the box and say it's a law enforcement problem. We can look at corporate corruption, and say that's a law enforcement problem. And we can look at public corruption, and say it's a law enforcement problem. And that means we don't have to deal with it. It's covered. It's dealt with. If we need to hire more law enforcement, then do that. And that's a mistake, because it doesn't work that way.

The reason we have violence, is we often have large areas of our cities in different parts of the country, where we have lack of educational opportunities; we don't have good role models; we have more gang structures at times than family structures. And what we have to do is address the problems of poverty. You may think it odd that a prosecutor's talking about the reasons why people commit crime. I don't think growing up in a poor neighborhood excuses you from crime. You can't rob a bank, shoot someone, and excuse it by having a rough upbringing. Many people have rough upbringings and make very positive contributions. Where I think we make a big mistake, we don't recognize that, while we hold individuals responsible for what they do, we have a much larger responsibility to address the underlying problems that cause violence to grow.

And carrying that over to public corruption, or corporate corruption, I think we have a willingness to hold people accountable when we see people who are crooks and steal money from companies, or cause losses to shareholders, and then we jump to law enforcement as the next solution - and we skip past the middle. The middle are the people who are out there working, who are honest, who see upfront that other people are corrupt and don't do anything about it sometimes. They're good people, but I think they rationalize that someone should say, you know, that person shouldn't be corrupt, and they ought to worry about the FBI finding out about what they're doing. They don't think to themselves, they ought to worry about my telling the FBI about what they're doing.

I'm not a big person on philosophers, but an FBI agent I worked with in Africa gave me a picture when I left New York - of the scenes of the bombings - and it had an inscription on the bottom from Edmund Burke, that said, "All that evil needs to flourish, is for good men to do nothing." And that's a very powerful insight and lesson. That we can't take the view that if law enforcement is out there, let them take care of it. People need to stand up and be counted when they see wrong-doing around them. That's doubly true in the public corruption arena. The very concern that people think that we will end corruption at the end of handcuffs or subpoenas.

What we really need is a cultural change. Not from law enforcement, but from the people joining society, the full, adult citizens you're about to become. There may be a day in the future, where some of you are approached by someone, when you want something from the government. They may ask you to pay them something. They may ask you to pay them something, even though you're entitled to what you're supposed to get. But you'll be afraid about what happens if you don't. We need to change that world. We need not to have people think when they come up to you, and someone else gives you advice, and says, "Well, don't worry. That's the way it is. That's the way it works. Just go along. No one will know." We need people to understand that if we take the attitude that that's the way it is, that's only true if each and every one of you allows it to be. We need to take the world, and change it in a way that people who ask people for money when they hold public office need not be able to understand that the people they ask are afraid not to say yes. We need to make the people who would ask, afraid to ask in the first place.

I know that you here at Knox College lived by an Honor Code for the past four years. That should not be a phase you went through as you go onto the big campus of the real world. You should view that as an apprenticeship - a four-year apprenticeship from being concerned students, to being active citizens. And if you each here today resolve that every one of you -- would resolve -- that if anyone ever tried to corrupt business, society, or government in your presence, that you would scream loudly, that you would blow the whistle, that you would be as loud as one of those train horns. That would make a real difference in the world.

It's not lost on me that the people here today are graduating because you have ability, talent, energy and drive. What you do with your life, is up to you from here on out. I suggest to you that if you have a chance to do public service, if you find a way that's meaningful to you where you think you can contribute, you should grab it. Whether that's full-time, whether that's part-time. But you can make a difference in this world, if you send the word out, that you'll be active citizens who will stand up and be counted when others do wrong.

Good luck.

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