Acceptance Speech

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Caroline and Senator Kennedy, Trustees of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, Chairman Murtha, family, colleagues, and friends.

Today, the Foundation accords me a great honor. The value and significance I give to the Profile in Courage Award is amplified both because it carries President Kennedy’s name and because it recognizes courage – that rarest of virtues that was, as Robert Kennedy told us, the one the President admired most. I thank you most humbly and gratefully for this award.

Today, we all remember President Kennedy and his life’s meaning. We remember his humor and contagious smile, his elegance, and the grace of his bearing and language. We remember his courage as a naval officer in combat at sea, his courage in public office, and his courage in the face of the pain and physical infirmities that accompanied much of his life. We remember his ideals, and his uncompromising defense of our liberties and national values.

And, today, we feel the heat of a small eternal flame burning on an Arlington hillside. Today, just as when first lit more than forty years ago, that testament of fire eloquently expresses both our Nation’s continuing sense of loss and – equally – our celebration of a life of exuberance, excellence, achievement, and service that is of lasting consequence and meaning for our future.

The Foundation recognizes me for certain actions that are generously, too generously, classified as “courageous.” These actions were in response to policies adopted by our Nation that permitted the infliction of cruelty upon captive human beings. Please allow me to say a few words about courage – and cruelty.

For over four years I had the privilege of serving as Navy General Counsel, where I worked with men and women who embody real courage. They were easy to spot because they wore the uniform of the Navy or Marines or of the other services. By now, most have served in the battlefields of the Middle East. Many have been there more than once and many bear the scars of combat. Despite the name of the award you give me today, I want you to know I have difficulty applying the same word of distinction to my actions. When I hear the word “courage,” I think of them.

All of us understand physical courage. Few of us here may be veterans of combat, but all of us are veterans of the schoolyard. And each of us remembers moments – even if only from childhood – when our knees were knocking because this type of courage was demanded of us. We know what it takes to summon physical courage, so we honor our men and women in uniform because their courage, routinely, is put to the ultimate test. Yet what I never understood until I started working with our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines is that their service to their country requires far more than physical courage. They have other types of courage that are less visible to those of us who have never worn the uniform.

A large painting hangs on the wall above the marble staircase leading to the Secretary of Defense’s office in the Pentagon. It depicts an Air Force officer and his family in church, kneeling at the altar. Soft light flows from a stained glass window behind them. Devoutly kneeling beside the officer are his wife and their young son and daughter. They are all praying, heads bowed, their faces partially hidden.

During my first days at the Pentagon, I found the painting to be almost incomprehensible. Why should this painting, from the hundreds that hang in that building, be given such prominence? As a work of art it is not particularly distinguished. Its surface theme of military faith seemed to me to be of lesser importance, and certainly less heroic, than many of the other topics captured in the large body of art collected during our military history.

There is, however, a plaque below and along the length of the painting that provides meaning and transforms it into something moving and eloquent. The plaque, which had at first escaped my attention, bears the inscription from the Bible – Isaiah, chapter 6, verse 8 – in which God asks the question: “Whom shall I send. And who will go for us?”, and to which Isaiah answers: “Here I am. Send me!” The coupling of this biblical passage to the scene of the military family at prayer changed my entire understanding of the painting. It also changed my comprehension of the courage demanded every day of our men and women in uniform and of their families. From that painting, two lessons will stay with me, always.

First, it taught me that our soldiers’ courage is tested outside of military actions. Their courage, the painting taught me, is not first called for in battle. It is first demonstrated when a person decides to become a soldier, when he or she stands up, answers the Nation’s call, and says, “Here I am. Send me.” Courage is also demonstrated in the moment depicted in the painting – the departure. This is that moment in every soldier’s life when he or she, departing for duty or combat, says goodbye to the family; when they say goodbye; and when the soldier breaks the family’s embrace and turns to go. These moments occur and have occurred countless times since the first days of our Nation. We know it took place in the histories of the Kennedy and Murtha families, as it did, no doubt, in the lives of others in this room. At that moment, all the family members know they may never see each other again. Yet the soldier still turns, and leaves. “Here I am. Send me.” And the spouse and the son and the daughter – or perhaps it is the father and mother – let the soldier go. After the screen door slams and the sound of the footsteps fade, the family then endures the separation, and the loneliness, and the fears. They, too, say, “Here I am. Send me.”

This is courage.

The second lesson I drew from this painting comes from the bowed head of the Air Force officer. Many in the military services are devout; for them, their faith is an important and sustaining part of their lives in the military. Many others find less importance in religion or no importance at all. This is equally respected. But devout or not, every soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine pledges his or her allegiance to our Constitution and to the values protected by this document. The officer’s bowed head reminds us that American military power, indeed, any use of force by our Nation, should always be subordinated to our laws and values. Without such subordination, our power is purposeless and unconstrained, and may become illegitimate.

In response to the 3,000 murders on September 11, our Nation went to war. In Afghanistan, our targets were the Al Qaeda perpetrators and the Taliban regime that aided and abetted them. In Iraq, the target was an unstable tyrant who had a history of using chemical weapons and who could be trusted to cheat on and retreat from his international commitments. I supported both engagements as Navy General Counsel. I support them still as a private citizen. I regard each as a prudent and even necessary use of force. The terrorist threat, and the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction in reckless hands, can never be underestimated: I subscribe to Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England’s view that the only reason Al Qaeda killed 3,000 individuals was because they couldn’t kill three million. These threats dictated an aggressive response, and President Bush and our Nation responded accordingly.

And yet, there have been times in our Nation’s history when, in our quest for security, our fear momentarily overcomes our judgment and our power slips the discipline of the law and our national values.

One such moment occurred in 1942 following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In what will always be regarded as an act of national shame, military authorities rounded up 120,000 American citizens of Japanese ancestry and incarcerated them on the presumption of disloyalty. These citizens were stripped of their rights and held in detention camps for the duration of the war. Many lost businesses and property. When we recall this event – and it is relevant to our current situation – we also recall with shame the Supreme Court’s abdication of its judicial responsibilities in the notorious Korematsu decision, where it endorsed the legality of the patently unconstitutional detention.

Korematsu reminds us that when threats and fear converge, our laws and principles can become fragile. They are fragile today. In the summer of 2002 – sixty years after Korematsu and only four years ago – at Guantanamo and elsewhere, U.S. authorities held in detention individuals thought to have information on other impending attacks against the United States. Unless this information was obtained, it was believed, more Americans – perhaps many more – would die. In this context, our government issued legal and policy documents providing, in effect, that for some detainees labeled as “unlawful combatants,” interrogation methods constituting cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment could be applied under the President’s constitutional commander-in-chief authorities. Although there is continuing debate as to the details of how, when, and why, we know such cruel treatment was applied at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and other locations. We know the treatment may have reached the level of torture in some instances. And there are still questions as to whether these policies were related, if at all, to the deaths of several dozen detainees in custody.

It is astonishing to me, still, that I should be here today addressing the issue of American cruelty – or that anyone would ever have to. Our forefathers, who permanently defined our civic values, drafted our Constitution inspired by the belief that law could not create, but only recognize, certain inalienable rights granted by God – to every person, not just citizens, and not just here, but everywhere. Those rights form a shield that protects core human dignity. Because this is so, the Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel punishment. The constitutional jurisprudence of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments outlaws cruel treatment that shocks the conscience. The Nuremberg Trials – that triumph of American justice and statesmanship that launched the modern era of human rights and international criminal law – treated prisoner abuse as an indictable crime. The Geneva Conventions forbid the application of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment to all captives, as do all of the major human rights treaties adopted and ratified by our country during the last century. There should have been no doubt or ambiguity about the standard of conduct that our laws require of us. And even if laws have jurisdictional limits, there could have been no doubt about what our values forbade.

Despite this, there was abuse. Not all were mistreated, but some were. For those mistreated, history will ultimately judge what the precise quantum of abuse inflicted was – whether it was torture or some lesser cruelty – and whether it resulted from official commission, omission, or whether it occurred despite every reasonable effort to prevent the abuse. Whatever the ultimate historical judgment, it is established fact that documents justifying and authorizing the abusive treatment of detainees during interrogation were approved and distributed. These authorizations rested on the three beliefs: that no law prohibited the application of cruelty; that no law should be adopted that would do so; and that our government could choose to apply the cruelty – or not – as a matter of policy depending on the dictates of perceived military necessity. Some officials may also have believed that, if this abuse were disclosed or discovered, virtually no one would care. The resulting, inescapable truth is that – no matter how circumscribed these policies were, or how short their duration, or how few the victims – for as long as these policies were in effect our government had adopted what only can be labeled as a policy of cruelty.

The fact that we adopted this policy demonstrates that this war has tested more than our Nation’s ability to defend ourselves. It has tested our response to our fears, and the measure of our courage. It has tested our commitment to our most fundamental values and our constitutional principles. It has tested the depth of our commitment to those certain truths that our forefathers held to be self-evident. It has tested our understanding of what the terms “justice,” “the law,” “the rule of law,” and “human rights” are. It has tested our vision of what the relationship should be between the individual and the government. And, no less important, this war has tested our definition of human dignity. In this war, we have come to a crossroads – much as we did in the events that led to Korematsu: Will we continue to regard the protection and promotion of human dignity as the essence of our National character and purpose, or will we bargain away human and national dignity in return for an additional possible measure of physical security?

We need to be clear. Cruelty disfigures our national character. It is incompatible with our constitutional order, with our laws, and with our most prized values. Cruelty can be as effective as torture in destroying human dignity, and there is no moral distinction between one and the other. To adopt and apply a policy of cruelty anywhere within this world is to say that our forefathers were wrong about their belief in the rights of man, because there is no more fundamental right than to be safe from cruel and inhumane treatment. Where cruelty exists, law does not.

Why should we still care about these issues? The Abu Ghraib abuses have been exposed; Justice Department memoranda justifying cruelty and even torture have been ridiculed and rescinded; the authorizations for the application of extreme interrogation techniques have been withdrawn; and, perhaps most critically, the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, which prohibits cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, has been enacted, thanks to the courage and leadership of Sen. John McCain, a former Profile in Courage award recipient.

We should care because the issues raised by a policy of cruelty are too fundamental to be left unaddressed, unanswered, or ambiguous. We should care because a tolerance of cruelty will corrode our values and our rights and degrade the world in which we live. It will corrupt our heritage, cheapen the valor of the soldiers upon whose past and present sacrifices our freedoms depend, and debase the legacy we will leave to our sons and daughters. We should care because it is intolerable to us that anyone should believe for a second that our Nation is tolerant of cruelty. And we should care because each of us knows that this issue has not gone away.

The years ahead will continue to test our national security. We again will be tempted to violate our values in the mistaken belief that we will be made more secure by doing so. When that test comes again – and it certainly will – we must muster the courage to defend our principles more firmly. We will have to be prepared – as President Kennedy said in his inaugural speech of his own, “new generation” of Americans – to be, also, a generation “unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.”

It would be inappropriate for me to conclude without acknowledging those former colleagues whose work contributed to all I did at the Department of the Navy and, in some cases, to the very acts you recognize this morning. I am indebted to Secretary England for his superb leadership and superb leadership team; to my colleagues at the Navy Office of General Counsel, personified by Bill Molzahn, Art Hildebrant, and Peter Murphy; to the Navy Judge Advocate General Corps, which was led on my watch by RADMs Don Guter, Mike Lohr, and Jim McPherson; to the Judge Advocate Division of the Marine Corps and its commander, BG Kevin Sandkuhler; and to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, led by Dave Brant. Each of them – and many others – has my gratitude and admiration. They deserve the thanks of all for their service, and for what they have done to protect our Nation and the values upon which it stands.

Once more, I thank you –– for this award; for your many courtesies to me, my wife Susan, and my son Alex; and for allowing me to discuss with you why courage, in a time of cruelty, matters more than ever.

Remarks made by Alberto J. Mora, former U.S. Navy General Counsel, on accepting the 2006 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, May 22, 2006.

Click here to watch the acceptance speech by Alberto Mora on YouTube

(Part I) & (Part II)