Bill Clinton speaks

In a speech made earlier this month at Yale University, the former president reflects on "the first great struggle for the soul of the 21st century."

Published October 25, 2001 10:43PM (EDT)

Thank you very much, Mr. President, thank you for that wonderful introduction. And thank you for coming out in such large numbers today at such an important time for Yale and the United States. I would like to thank the mayor of New Haven, John DeStefano, and my great friend and former colleague, your member of Congress, Rosa DeLauro, for being here. I have two other friends, who like me are no longer in public office, but who made a great difference in what we were able to do. Kurt Schmoke, the former mayor of Baltimore. My great partner, Ernesto Zedillo, the former president of Mexico. Thank you for being here. I also have seen today a lot of people who were members of our administration. There are five or six of them out there, and so I appreciate Yale giving us a pretext for holding a Clinton alumni meeting today.

I was privileged to study here for exactly 1 percent of Yale's 300 years. I loved the law school. I liked my professors, and have stayed in touch with many of them over all these long years. One of them I was able to put on the Court of Appeals. One of them I tried to torment in class with disagreements and he lived to torment me -- my constitutional law professor, Robert Bork. We had great debates 30 years ago. Now that I replay them in my mind, they seem fresh today. I was fortunate enough to be here at Yale Law School with a phenomenal number of outstanding men and women who were my fellow students. One of them did become the United States senator from New York. Senator Schumer went to Harvard. Meeting Hillary was the best thing that happened to me at Yale, and maybe the only thing that really stuck over all of these 30 years.

I understand there was some discussion in the Yale community about whether this Tercentennial should go forward in the aftermath of the awful events of September the 11th. I thank you for going forward. It is what President Bush asked us to do when he asked to us get on with our lives, and it is particularly important at this time.

Marking 300 years of learning at any time would be a significant event. But marking it at this time, with a commitment to be a truly global university, is obviously profoundly important. For 300 years, beginning three quarters of a century before the Declaration of Independence, Yale has taught young people the wisdom of the past, the analysis of the present and the importance of looking to the future. Yale has asked hard questions and looked for honest answers. That is what I found here 30 years ago, and that is what I see when I look out on this vast array of faces today.

America is full of hard questions now. I have spent a great deal of the last three weeks in Manhattan, visiting the crisis center, ground zero, fire stations and police headquarters, and three schools -- two of them double schools because half the children were blown out of their own schools by the events of September the 11th. And I have found so many questions. Hillary and I went to an elementary school in lower Manhattan, where 9- and 10-year old students asked me these questions: "Why do they hate us so much anyway?" "How did that guy get all those people to commit suicide?" I never thought I would hear a 9-year-old ask a question like that.

The other day, I had a conversation with Mack McLarty, who was my first chief of staff and my oldest friend of 50 years. We were talking about the events of September the 11th. We had a conversation I believe thousands and thousands of Americans our age have had in the last three weeks. I said, "Mack, if we had been on that plane over Pennsylvania, do you think we would have had the guts to take it down?" He said, "I think so, and I hope so."

I have gotten calls from women friends of Hillary's and mine, who are mothers of young children from all over America with a simple question: "Bill, is it going to be all right? Tell me it's going to be all right." Well, first of all, it's going to be all right. I can tell you that.

Terrorism -- the killing of innocent people for political or religious or economic reasons -- is as old as organized combat. It's been around a very long time. If we look through history honestly, we find it in uncomfortable places. In the Crusade in which the European Christians seized Jerusalem, they burned a mosque, slaughtered 300 Jews and killed every mother and child on the Temple Mount who was a Muslim. But no campaign of terror standing on its own, without organized military combat, has ever succeeded in all of human history. Indeed, it is not the purpose of terror to succeed militarily. It is the purpose of terror to terrify, and I would guess that a lot of young people in this audience today who have never lived through such a difficult crisis have been understandably terrified.

Our country is highly diverse -- we have people here today from just about every country, every racial and ethnic group and every religious heritage. What terrorists seek, first of all, is to make us afraid of each other. And secondly, to make us afraid of the future: afraid to plan; afraid to invest, afraid to trust. That is what they seek. Therefore, terrorism cannot prevail unless we cooperate. It is not a military strategy, it is a psychological and human one. We have to give the people who attacked us permission to win, and I do not believe we are about to grant them that permission.

Mr. bin Laden and his allies misjudge America. They think we are fundamentally a weak, greedy, selfish, materialistic people. They think we are weakened by our lack of a national religion and imposed social order. But they are wrong. All Americans have been proud in these last days of the performance of our leaders, from the president, to the governor, to the mayor of New York; and yes, to the senators. I am very proud of my wife and her colleagues in the House and the Senate, and especially proud of the people.

Hillary and I went to a Rosh Hashana service the other night in our own little village of Chappaqua. We lost a person out of the temple on September the 11th. I met one of the two men there who escaped from the 84th floor of the World Trade Center carrying a disabled woman all the way to safety. When I went into the family crisis center at Pier 94, a man came up to me and said to me: "Why, Mr. President, I haven't seen you since Oklahoma City." And I said, "How did I see you there?" He said, "You came to console me. My wife was blown up in the bombing of Oklahoma City and I had no one to talk to. So when I saw that this happened, I told my boss I was taking two weeks off, and I got in my car and I drove here. I sit here all day, every day talking to people. I had no one to talk to and I thought I might be of help."

I have visited many of the firemen. The fire department is a marvelous organization in the modern world. It's more like a medieval army, where instead of sitting behind and issuing orders, the leaders lead. And so in our fire department, we lost the chief, his three top aides, the chaplain and over 200 other officers, out of 340 killed. No one took a backseat when it came to sacrifice. I think those who believed that this would weaken us have misjudged us. All over America, there has been a tremendous outpouring of caring -- over $600 million pledged. I thank the workers and the people at Yale for the work you did, for those who lost loved ones or feared they had. We are going to be all right.

Still, we must realize that we have a formidable adversary and a difficult challenge. Partly, because in every conflict throughout human history, defense lags offense by a little bit. This has always happened. But so far, the human race is still around because self-preservation and decency catches up and triumphs. Nevertheless, I think we have to take this seriously and see it for exactly what it is -- I believe we are engaged in the first great struggle for the soul of the 21st century. We must understand terrorism in the modern world and ask ourselves what we have to do, not only to prevent terrorism and protect ourselves, but to undermine the conditions and attitudes that bring to the terrorists their foot soldiers and sympathizers.

If I had asked you on September the 10th the following question, what would your answer be? What is the dominant trait of the world in the early 21st century? If you are an optimistic person, it seems to me you might have given one of four answers. You might have said, "Well, it's the globalization of the economy and culture that has lifted more people out of poverty in the last 20 years than any time in all history and brought America unprecedented opportunity." Or you might have said, if you are a "techie," "It is the information technology revolution." When I became president in January of 1993, there were 50 sites on the World Wide Web. When I left office, there were 350 million. There was never anything like it in the history of communications. Or you might have said, if you were a scientist, "It's the evolution in the sciences." We're going to find out what's in the black holes in the universe. Last year, we found two new species of life, in previously unexplored river bottoms. The human genome has been sequenced and soon women will bring home babies from the hospital with little gene cards saying, "Here are the kid's problems and the kid's strengths." Soon babies born in America or any country with a good health system will have a life expectancy in excess of 90 years. We have scientists working on digital chips to replicate the nerve functions of damaged spinal cords, raising the prospect that a chip might do for a spine like what a pacemaker does for the heart, and people thought to be permanently paralyzed might get up and walk. And all of this is truly amazing.

Or if you are a political scientist, you might say the dominant force of this period is the explosion of democracy around the world and diversity at home. For the first time in human history, more than half the world lives under governments of their own choosing, and in our country and others with strong economies, there is an explosion of diversity. America is a lot more interesting place than it was 30 years ago. If we had had this meeting 30 years ago, you wouldn't look like you do. It's a lot more fun to be here, more educational, and more exciting because of that.

It seems to me if you are optimistic, on September 10, when I said, "What is the dominant strength of the 21st century world?" you could have given one of those four answers: the global economy, the explosion of democracy and diversity around the world, the information technology explosion, the scientific revolution.

On the other hand, if you are a little more pessimistic, or if you are what Hillary refers to as your family's "designated worrier," you might have mentioned four negative things. First, climate change. Nine of the hottest years ever recorded occurred in the last 12. If the climate warms at the same rate in the next 50 years as it has in the last 10, we will lose several Pacific island nations, the Florida Everglades and 50 feet of Manhattan Island. Agriculture will be disrupted all over the world, creating millions of food refugees. There is a terrible water shortage in the world already. One in four people on the globe never gets a clean glass of water. There is a serious deterioration in the quality of our oceans, which provide so much of our oxygen. If we don't reverse these trends we will have terrible problems.

Or you could say, "No, no, before that happens, we will be engulfed by health crises." This year one in four people in the world will die of AIDS, TB, malaria or infections related to malaria. Thirty-six million people have AIDS. The fastest growing rates are in the former Soviet Union, on Europe's back door, and in the Caribbean, on our front door. China just admitted they have twice as many AIDS cases as they had previously thought, and only 4 percent of the adults there know how the disease is contracted and spread. At present trends we will have 100 million AIDS cases by 2005. That is a recipe for turmoil and violence.

Or you could say, "No, the real problem is the flip side of globalization." Half the world's people aren't a part of it. It is true that more people have been lifted out of poverty by globalization in the last 20 years than ever before. It is also true that half the people in the world still live on less than $2 a day, that a billion of our people still live on less than a dollar a day. Think about that the next time you buy a cup of coffee. A billion go to bed hungry every night. That too is a recipe for revolution, compounded by the fact that 100 million children never go to school at all. Or even on September 10, you might have said, "No, the biggest problem will be terrorism, coupled with weapons of mass destruction, rooted in racial and religious and ethnic hatreds."

Here is what I would like to say: Whether you would have given a positive answer, or a negative answer, there is something that all eight answers have in common. They all reflect the astonishing increase in global interdependence. We have seen the collapse of distances and barriers bringing us closer together for good or ill. Terrorism is simply the dark side of our increasing interdependence. We have not repealed human nature or the fact some people see reality very differently than we do. With more open societies, organized forces of destruction simply take advantage of the same forces that make our lives richer, more diverse and better.

Therefore, all the great questions of the 21st century boil down to one: Is this new age going to be good or bad, for me, my family, my community, my nation and the world? That's why Yale's mission in its fourth century, to build a truly global university, is so important. I was delighted, Mr. President, when my former deputy secretary of state and my old roommate, Strobe Talbott, became the head of your Globalization Center and his wife Brooke Shearer agreed to run the World Fellows Program. I said I would like to be a world fellow, and I was informed that I no longer qualify as a young world leader. So today you are stuck with my opinions without the benefit of further Yale study.

What do we have to do to make sure that we encourage the positive forces of interdependence, and that we restrain and combat the negative ones? I would like to make three points: First, we have to defend ourselves against terrorism. I want you to know that there are good people, lots of them, who have been working on this for years. Many, many, more attacks were planned on the United States but were thwarted by those public servants and our allies. During the millennium observances alone, there were plans for bombs in cities in the northeast and northwest, the Los Angeles airport, the largest hotel in Jordan, a Christian site in the Holy Land and a half dozen other sites. All thwarted.

Though good people are working hard, clearly there is more to do to build our defenses, to build our ability to be offensive, to build our capacity to maximize computer tracking networks to stop people who mean us harm. I don't want to say more about that right now, because the president, our national security teams and our allies have some tough tactical decisions to make. I think we ought to stick with them and give them the room they need to make decisions. So far, they have been making good decisions and we have no reason to believe that they won't do so in the future. On this, it's important for America to stay united. We are now and we must stay that way.

Again, I know it was frightening to have the first massive attack on American soil. And nothing can minimize the human loss. But let me remind the young people here that the century we just left was the bloodiest in all human history. Twelve million died in World War I, 20 million between the wars, over 20 million in World War II, and another 20 million from government oppression after the war, not counting the millions who died in Korea and Vietnam, and later in the senseless slaughters from Rwanda and Bosnia. The world has never been free of violence. Today the price tag on the benefits of our interdependent world is greater vulnerability to terrorists. But our defenses will catch up. What we have to do as citizens is to think about what else has to be done, what else we personally can do. We have to lead an assault on the conditions of negative interdependence and create more opportunities for positive interdependence.

America should continue to work to reduce global poverty and spread the benefits of globalization to people in countries that haven't felt it, with initiatives like more debt relief, more micro-credit, more sensible trade policies. America should contribute its fair share to Secretary-General Kofi Annan's health fund to fight the spread of the AIDS epidemic. America should deal with the challenge of climate change through conservation and the development of alternative energy, and through helping our friends and neighbors throughout the world do the same.

America should continue to promote democracy. One particular problem we have, in the present crisis, is that so many people who hear the siren song of radical Islamic fundamentalism, with its twisted reading of the Koran, live in countries growing ever larger, ever younger and ever poorer, where there is no democracy or chance to express dissent or even assent in a normal political way. That keeps the populace in a state of sort of permanent infancy, in which they never have to take responsibility for their own lives and making them better because they never get to take responsibility. Therefore it is very easy to listen to someone say your problems were caused by America's success.

It's a hard case to make because people from all of those countries come to America and share in that success. It is a hard case to make, because America's military power was used most recently to protect poor Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo, because America led the world in debt relief for the poorest countries, and because the savings from debt relief had to be used by poor countries for education, health care, and development and nothing else. But nonetheless, if you never get to vote or stand for public office you are permanently disempowered. So they hear the siren song; it is all because of America. We have to keep urging our friends to find ways to move to greater democracy and freedom.

Finally, let me say that even more important than what we do, is who we are. We must understand that this present conflict, as agonizing as the loss was, is about far more than the buildings collapsing and the people dying. This is about conflict with a global force with a fundamentally different view of the nature of truth, the value of life, the character of human community. Mr. bin Laden and the Taliban believe they have the truth, that everybody who agrees with them is good, and everybody who doesn't is evil. This great university is dedicated to the proposition that nobody has the absolute truth. So we all get to vote. We have the right to freedom of speech. We have the right of freedom of religion. We have the right of freedom of assembly. And we have the responsibilities of a free people because we believe that life is a journey, an effort to move closer and closer to the truth. But because we are finite, limited human beings, we never will achieve it.

These differences lead to different views of the value of human life. Because we believe that we are all traveling on this journey together, we have come, over time, more and more to value all lives, to think that everybody counts, and that everybody deserves a chance. By contrast, they believe there are three kinds of people. There are the people who embrace their particular view of Islam. Then there are the Muslims who don't agree with their reading of the Koran, who keep quoting the portion of the Koran that says "Allah, put different people on the earth, not that they might despise one another, but that they might come to know one another and learn from one another." They hate being reminded of that in Afghanistan. People who believe that are heretics to them. The rest of us who aren't Muslims are infidels. We are all combatants in the war and we all deserve whatever happens to us, even a 6-year-old girl who on the morning of September 11 went with her mother to work in the World Trade Center.

Of all the things that I have seen and been moved by in the last few weeks, the thing I will carry with me to the grave, is the lines of the victims' families holding their little flyers. For days and days, people didn't know whether their loved ones were alive or dead or even in the building when it was hit. So they all made up flyers saying: this is my wife, my husband, my brother, my sister, my mother, my father, my child. Here is the picture. This is what floor they were on, how tall they were, how much they weighed. All these people holding the pictures. There were Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Japanese, Chinese, British, and German, Mexicans, Chileans. There were people from every conceivable religious faith. They were all there, a stunning rebuke to the people who thought they had the right to kill them because they had the whole truth.

So we have very different views about the character of community. We believe we all do better when we work together. And all you have to do in our country is to accept the rules of engagement, our rules about everybody counting, everybody getting a voice, everybody getting to vote. About showing up every day to do what is right. We have the freedom to celebrate our diversity because we are grounded in our common humanity. Their community is not united by common humanity. It is defined by what it is not. Mr. bin Laden wants all the Middle East to look like the Taliban. What a dreary world. We have seen on television scenes from that movie "Behind The Veil," showing what their beliefs are like, forcing women to wear those horrible burqas, beating them with sticks in public and worse.

They are formidable adversaries. They do not believe they are evil. They believe they are good. Therefore the most important thing we can do, is to have in our minds clearly the world we are trying to make, to affirm that our wealth is not an end in itself, but a tool to allow people to live up to their God-given abilities, to keep struggling to get beyond those categories of difference to our common humanity. And we should never be blind to how difficult it is going to be. Think of the great spirits of the last 50 years: Ghandi killed, not by a Pakistani Muslim, but one of his own Hindus, who hated him because he wanted India for the Muslims, the Sikhs, for everybody; Sadat, killed by the organization that Mr. bin Laden's No. 2 heads now, not by an Israeli, but by an Egyptian. My friend Yitzhak Rabin -- after a lifetime defending Israel, killed -- not by a Palestinian terrorist, but an angry Israeli because he wanted to lay down arms and take up peace. This is hard. I thank God that of all the great spirits of the last 50 years, Mandela survived, probably only because he first had to pay with 27 years of his life in jail.

Fanatics are defined by their hatreds; free people by their humanity.

Throughout our history, America's mission has been to widen the circle of opportunity, to deepen the meaning of freedom, to strengthen the bonds of community. Now, even beyond our borders, we can no longer deny to others what we claim for ourselves. That is the ultimate lesson for the interdependent world. We are going to get through this crisis. Our leaders are going to make good decisions. But in the end, we not only have to stop bad things from happening, we have to build for you, the best, the most prosperous, the most peaceful and most exciting time the world has ever known. And we can do it, if we remember who we are and what we believe.

Thank you and God bless you.

By Salon Staff

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