by Bill Clinton
The Roosevelt Room
April 6, 1999
10:51 A.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. Senator Leahy, Senator Specter, Congressman Cardin and Delahunt, Secretary Riley, Acting Assistant Attorney General Bill Lann Lee; to our D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey, and the other distinguished guests in the audience who are in support — broadened support of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act. Let me begin by thanking Attorney General Ketterer and Bishop Jane Holmes Dixon for being here.
I want you to know that the Attorney General got up at 3:00 a.m. this morning to drive down here from Maine. And of course, he got up that early so he could stay lawfully within the speed limit — (laughter) — coming down here. And he set a good example, and he was wide awake and very persuasive on the law.
Bishop, we thank you for your very moving remarks. Remind me never to speak behind you again. (Laughter.) It was -so much of what the Bishop said about the setting of this is many things that I have thought. I think she and I and those of us who grew up in the segregated south are perhaps more sensitive to all these various hate crimes issues because we grew up in a culture that was dominated for too long by people who thought they only counted if they had somebody to look down on, that they could only lift themselves up if they were pushing someone else down; that their whole definition of a positive life required a negative definition of another group of people. That’s really what this is all about.
And if you — as she said, if you look at the whole history of this violence we see in Kosovo, what we went through in Bosnia, this, the fifth anniversary of the awful Rwandan genocide, that I regret so much the world was not organized enough to move quickly enough to deal with it before hundreds of thousands of lives were lost — with the oppression of women in Afghanistan, with the lingering bitterness in the Middle East — you see all these things. When you strip it all away, down deep inside there is this idea that you cannot organize personal life or social life unless some group feels better about itself only when they are oppressing someone else. Or people at least believe that they ought to have the right to do violence against someone else solely because of who they are, not because of what they do. Now, at the bottom, that’s what this is all about.
And I have said repeatedly since I have been President that one of the things I have sought to do in our country is to bridge all these divides, and to get all of our people not to agree with one another, not to even like one another all the time — goodness knows, we can’t like everybody all the time — but to recognize that our common humanity is more important than these categorical differences. And also to recognize that over the long run, America will not be able to be a force for good abroad unless we are good at home.
If you think about the brave men and women who are working with our NATO allies today in Kosovo, and you remember that this basically all started 12 years ago, when Mr. Milosevic decided to rally the support of his ethnic Serbian group by turning their hatred against the Kosovar Albanians, and later the Bosnian Muslims and the Croatian Catholics, and the others — it is very important that we deal with these challenges here at home, even as we continue to support the work of our people in uniform in this Balkans.
I want to say again, the United States would never choose force as anything other than a last option. And Mr. Milosevic could end it now by withdrawing his military police and paramilitary forces, by accepting the deployment of an international security force to protect not only the Kosovar Albanians, most but not all of whom are Muslims, but also the Serbian minority in Kosovo. Everybody. We’re not for anybody’s hate crimes. And by making it possible for all the refugees to return and to move toward a political framework based on the accords reached in France.
Now, as I said, we can’t continue to organize ourselves to try to stand against these things around the world — which I firmly hope we will. I applaud the women in America who have done so much to bring to the world’s attention the terrible treatment of women in Afghanistan, for example. And we have worked hard in Africa to work with other African forces to build an Africa Crisis Response Initiative so that something like the Rwanda genocide cannot happen again. We have to keep working on these things.
But first of all, we must always be working on ourselves. That’s really what this is about. Because we know this is more the work of the Bishop than the President, but we know that inside each of us there are vulnerabilities to dehumanizing other people simply by putting them in a category that permits us to dismiss them, or that permits us to put them in a category so that on a bad day, when we’re feeling especially bad about something we’ve done, we can say, well, thank God I’m not them. And it is a short step from that — a short, short step from that — to licensing or even participating in acts of violence.
As I said, it may be — I was standing here looking at Secretary Riley, and Bishop Dixon; I was thinking about all the years that Secretary Riley and I worked together. It may be that the three of us are more sensitive to this because we grew up in the segregated South, but it is very easy to get into a social system where you always get to think a little better of yourself because you’ve always got someone that you can dehumanize.
And that’s really what this whole issue with gays is today in America. We’re not talking about everybody agreeing with everybody else on every political issue. We’re talking about whether people have a right, if they show up and work hard and obey the law, and are good citizens, to pursue their lives and dignity without — free of fear, without fear of being abused.
And this should not be a partisan issue. I want to thank Senator Specter for showing up here today. This ought not to be anything other than a basic, simple statement of American principle.
But I would like to say one other thing, just as a practical matter. Isn’t it interesting to you that we are on the eve of a new century and a new millennium — which will be largely characterized by globalization, the explosion of technology, especially information, and the integration of people — and the number one security threat to that is the persistence of old, even primitive, hatreds? Don’t you think that’s interesting?
So what I worry about all the time is whether terrorists can get on the Internet and figure out how to make chemical and biological weapons to pursue agendas against people of different ethnic or religious groups. And so it’s very humbling, I think, for those of us who think we have brought the modern world, and prosperity and rationality to all of human affairs, to see what is going on in the Balkans, and to see these terrible examples of violence here in our own country. It’s very humbling. We should remember that each of us almost wakes up every day with the scales of light and darkness in our own hearts, and we’ve got to keep them in proper balance. And we have to be, in the United States, absolutely resolute about this.
That’s why I think this hate crimes issue is so important. That’s why I convened the first White House Conference on Hate Crimes a year and a half ago. Since then, I would like to say, we have substantially increased the number of FBI agents working on these crimes. We have successfully prosecuted a number of serious cases. We have formed local hate crimes working groups in U.S. Attorney’s offices around the country.
But this is a significant problem. In 1997, the last year for which we have statistics, over 8,000 hate crime incidents were reported in the United States. That’s almost one an hour. Almost one an hour.
So, what are we going to do about it? I would like to mention — we’ve already talked about the law and I’ll say more about that in a minute, but first of all, let me mention three other things. I’ve asked the Justice Department and the Education Department to include in their annual report card on school safety crucial information on hate crimes among young people both at and away from schools — not only to warn, but to educate.
Secondly, I’m asking the Department of Education to collect important data for the first time on hate crimes and bias on college campuses. Another cruel irony, isn’t it — college, the place where we’re supposed to have the most freedom, the place where we’re supposed to be the most rational, the place where we’re supposed to think the highest thoughts with the greatest amount of space. We have significant hate crime problems there, and we need to shine the light on that.
Third, I’m very pleased about this — we are going to have a public-private partnership to help reach middle school students to discuss this whole issue with them and talk about tolerance — why it is a moral, as well as a practical imperative. And the partnership includes AT&T, Court TV — good for them — (laughter) — the National Middle School Association, the Anti-Defamation League, Cable in the Classrooms, as well as the Departments of Education and Justice. I would like to thank them all, because we have to not only punish bad things when they happen, the larger mission is to change the mind, the heart, and the habits of our people when they’re young — to keep bad things from happening.
Finally, let me join the others — the Attorney General and the Bishop — in saying, Congress should pass this law this year. The federal laws already punish some crimes committed against people on the basis of race or religion or national origin, but as the Attorney General made so clear, not all crimes committed for that purpose. This would strengthen and expand the ability of the Justice Department by removing needless jurisdictional requirements for existing crimes, and giving federal prosecutors the ability to prosecute hate crimes committed because of sexual orientation, gender or disability, along with race and religion.
Now, again I say, when we get exercised about these things — in particular, when someone dies in a horrible incident in America — or when we see slaughter or ethnic cleansing abroad, we should remember that we defeat these things by teaching and by practicing a different way of life, and by reacting vigorously when they occur within our own midst. That is what this is about. And we should remember, whenever we, ourselves, commit even a small slip, where we dehumanize or demonize someone else who is different from us — that every society must teach, practice, and react, if you want to make the most of the world toward which we are moving.
Our diversity is a godsend for us, and the world of the 21st century. But it is also the potential for the old, haunting demons that are hard to root out of the human spirit. The Hate Crimes Prevention Act would be important, substantively and symbolically, to send a message to ourselves and to the world that we are going into the 21st century determined to preach and to practice what is right.
Thank you very much. (Applause.)
END 11:08 A.M. EDT