Published on Monday, December 17, 2001 by Common Dreams
by Janis Besler Heaphy
Publisher and President of The Sacramento Bee
California State University - Sacramento
December 15, 2001
Thank you, Dr. Gerth.
Honored guests, faculty, parents, graduates:
It's challenging to give a commencement address. Understandably, the parents would like a speech that is somewhat sentimental. The faculty would prefer a speech that is substantive. And the graduates want a speech that is, well short .
I'll do my best to strike a balance among all those demands.
A common theme at commencement ceremonies is the future.
And why not?
For you, the graduates, today marks the end of one journey. And the beginning of another. That is as true for you today as it has been for the thousands of students that have walked before you. Each graduate, enriched by his or her academic experiences, has been poised to take the next step on whatever path he or she has chosen.
But it's different for you.
Different, because at no time in recent history has the future seemed more uncertain.
Different, because the world changed on September 11th.
Because of the uncertainty we face, the opportunity - and challenge - before today's graduates has never been greater. Decisions made in the near-term will shape America's future - your future. As you take your role in society, you'll have the chance - through words and deeds - to impact those decisions. We need your perspective. We need your energy. We need your thinking.
America has been described as having lost its innocence in the rubble that was the World Trade Center. The tragedies that occurred that day - and the events that followed - continue to reverberate throughout the nation. It was not just an attack on the Pentagon building. It was an attack on the United States. It wasn't just an assault on The Twin Towers. It was an assault on every American. On American values. On the American way of life.
The terrorist attacks awakened a sense of patriotism long dormant in this country.
We have been reminded of our greatness and how lucky we are to be Americans.
But that blessing comes with responsibilities.
It is our right, our privilege, our obligation to live and uphold America's values and ideals. And it is those values that I ask you to consider today.
Make no mistake that many of our most sacred principles of democracy have been tested - and will continue to be tested in the weeks and months ahead.
In the aftermath of the attacks, our initial reaction was for revenge. It was a predictable, human response. We wanted to retaliate, to bring to justice anyone - and everyone - responsible for the attacks.
In addition to revenge, steps had to be taken to protect our homeland.
And, to prevent similar occurrences, those measures needed to be fast and decisive.
No one argues the validity and need for both retaliation and security. But to what lengths are we willing to go to achieve them? Specifically, to what degree are we willing to compromise our civil liberties in the name of security?
Clearly, against the backdrop of fear and uncertainty we must re-evaluate our policies regarding surveillance and espionage. President Bush reminds us that we are at war against terrorism; that we are fighting acts of war on American soil, not mere crimes. As such, the government's surveillance powers have been significantly expanded, with the FBI being allowed to eavesdrop on conversations between certain suspected terrorists and their defense attorneys.
But what would happen to our individual privacy if wiretaps were to become common and widespread?
Racial profiling, long opposed by civil libertarians, has gained support as an investigative tool - at least in specific, limited situations. Since September 11th the FBI has questioned about 5,000 Middle Eastern men in this country on temporary visas. And more than 1,000 people have been arrested or detained, many of them on visa violations unrelated to terrorism. Those being held have been stripped of their rights to due process. For the most part, they go unnamed, uncharged.
White House officials contend that the old rules don't work in the new paradigm under which we now live.* The current legal and law enforcement cultures, they claim, have to change to prevent future attacks and to identify and prosecute suspected terrorists.
But what would it do to our society if racial-profiling became routine and individuals were treated as suspects solely on the basis of their resembling known criminals? And what would it say about the integrity of our judicial system if the suspension of habeas corpus became common?
Perhaps most troubling is the establishment of a secret military tribunal that would be used to try accused terrorists. Because of the vagueness surrounding their parameters, these same tribunals could be applied to ordinary state or federal crimes and used for any of the nation's 20 million resident aliens. And what do the tribunals say about our willingness to suspend a suspect's rights?
President Bush defends the Administration's actions pertaining to the curtailment of civil liberties as necessary, under the circumstances. "We're an open society," President Bush says. "But we're at war. And we must not let foreign enemies use the forums of liberty to destroy liberty itself."
On that last point, I absolutely agree with President Bush. Our liberty will not be assured until terrorism is wiped out. But we cannot allow our personal freedoms to erode in the process. It is for this very reason that we should question what the long-term effect of some of the Administration's recent policies will have on our values.
The Constitution makes it our right to challenge government policies. Our culture makes it our duty. Raising issues. Asking questions. Debating options.
The Founding Fathers understood that the free exchange of ideas and opinions is fundamental to democracy. And crucial to our democracy is a vibrant, free press.
Within days of the attacks, House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt put the nation on notice that some of our most cherished liberties were likely to be compromised in the near-term. According to Gephardt, "We're not going to have all the openness and freedom we have had. We need to find a new balance between freedom and security."
Since then, there have been several attempts by the Administration to manipulate the press, encouraging the press to surrender some of its independence and thoroughness in the name of patriotism and security.
In October, national security advisor Condoleezza Rice, citing security concerns, persuaded the five major television news organizations to censor portions of the videos produced by Osama bin Laden.
Under pressure from the Pentagon, Knight Ridder, publisher of highly respected newspapers such as the San Jose Mercury News and Philadelphia Inquirer, delayed printing a story that said special operations units had secretly entered Afghanistan.
Closer to home, back in late September, the White House, again citing security concerns, requested that The Bee publish less information than usual about the president's upcoming visit to Sacramento.
You may argue that in each of those situations the requests from the White House should have been honored on the basis of national security. Indeed, no reasonable person would insist that the press should be told every government secret or that it should publish everything it knows.
But where do we draw the line? And how do news organizations maintain their credibility if the public knows government has the ability to censor news reports?
If bin Ladin's words are suppressed, should we then censor the words of anyone who might oppose the Administration or disagrees with a United States policy?
Two days ago, government officials released a videotape they said proved bin Laden was behind the terrorist attacks. But, since previous bin Laden tapes had been censored, can the public really be sure that this latest tape hadn't also been?
As journalists, we make tough decisions every day about the public's right to know. We take our responsibility very seriously as we review the facts and look at the potential consequences. More often than not, we choose to publish a full accounting of events. The media's job is to keep the public informed - even when reports may include unpleasant or unsettling news. To do otherwise, to censor the flow of information, would be to invite suspicion by our readers.
Scrutiny by the press of this war on terrorism and publication of dissenting viewpoints are not signs of disloyalty.** Rather, they are expressions of confidence in democracy and in the fulfillment of the First Amendment's charge to hold government accountable.
Some of our political leaders may believe that less is more when it comes to information regarding the war on terrorism. And more than 50 percent of American citizens, it should be noted, support that position.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is a dangerous mindset. When information grows scant, rumor and innuendo swell to fill the void. When the press grows timid, half-truths and rhetoric pass as facts.***
Finding that balance to which Gephardt referred is difficult. During times of conflict, the line between national security and the public's right to know is tough to draw. But, because it is difficult, in the end, I believe that decisions about what to publish must remain with publishers and editors and broadcasters, not with government officials. Being unaware of danger is not the same as being safe from danger. In the absence of a compelling argument to the contrary, the public's right to know must prevail.
In the end, we simply cannot protect freedom by forsaking freedom. As much as we want to be safe from terrorism, we cannot make ourselves more secure by making our values less secure.
Thomas Friedman of the New York Times put it this way: "We have to fight terrorists as if there were no rules and preserve our open society as if there were no terrorists."
As you, the graduates, prepare to take your place in society I want to challenge you to be active participants in the democratic process. To exercise your rights as Americans.
That means staying educated about the issues. Listen to the radio. Watch television. Read newspapers, magazines, books. Be inquisitive. Remember, asking questions about government policies isn't disloyal. It's your duty.
Once you've developed your opinions, have the courage to express them.
Freedom of expression is one of our most cherished American values. It sets us apart. It makes us great. But it can't be taken for granted.
America was founded on the belief that the freedom to think as you will and speak as you think are essential to democracy. Only by exercising those rights can you ensure their continued existence.