UMC Links

University of Utah 2004 Commencement Address by Secretary of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge

May 07, 2004 — Thank you. President Betz [Lorris], Board of Regents, fellow honorees, distinguished faculty and trustees; family and friends… and, most especially, University of Utah’s Class of 2004.

Thank you for your warm welcome…for this honorary degree…and for inviting me to be part of this wonderful day of celebration.

It’s a pleasure to be here this morning…to visit the land of fresh air and wide open spaces…hiking trails and sloping terrain…but enough about the long walk from the parking lot.

Actually, I admit, I got a free pass; someone let me drive up to the front door; I won’t name names, but he’s on this stage right now.

Graduates, I’m well aware that at this moment I stand between you and your degrees, so I will do as all good commencement speakers should do — be brief and soon forgotten. First, I’d like to ask you to look up in the stands — and let us join in applause and praise of family, friends and faculty…of all those who helped make this day possible for you. [pause]

If you look closely, you will see that your parents are smiling with happiness, pride and a bit of relief…and because they have big plans for your room.

But today, we celebrate your big plans. Hard work has culminated in achievement…and now a springboard to a future of vast opportunity…in a world that awaits your name and many contributions.

Teddy Roosevelt once said, “Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” To the “Rough Rider,” “work worth doing” had a broad definition but a meaning with a common thread. The best prize in life, to our 26th president, meant service to a cause greater than self — no matter what your chosen field of endeavor.

Then as now, the “prize” is a passion, a pursuit, an unyielding desire to place a thumbprint on the clay of millions of years of history…and shape it for the betterment of the future. The “prize” is not in setting yourself apart, through celebrity and fame, but rather in holding your communities, your country, your world together…particularly, when it needs you most.

Adversity challenges every generation. And yet, far sooner than your parents and I would have liked, you learned that lesson during your “wonder years”…the hard way — by experience.

For my parents, adversity came with the attack on Pearl Harbor; the challenge was the test of will and patience and sacrifice that defined World War II. On a day of infamy, a nation was shaken and shocked by its vulnerability…and quickly stirred to extraordinary effort, bringing new workers to assembly lines and new weaponry to the battlefield.

For next generations, adversity came with the advent of the Cold War — and the challenge was the long but necessary calm and commitment of free nations that unraveled the oppression of communism, as it took its last collective breath in the rubble of the Berlin Wall.

The adversity of September 11th, 2001…and the challenge of the war against terrorism…is a test unlike any other, unspeakable, unimaginable to any of us before that tragic day. Many of you gathered at the Union that morning to hear the news, the news of nearly 3,000 lives lost.

In seeming slow motion, the Twin Towers fell, the Pentagon burned, the passengers of Flight 93 made their heroic goodbyes — then, for a moment…the world stood still.

It is characteristic of a free people that, even to this day, we find it difficult to comprehend the motivation behind the means. Yes, life in the minutes and months after 9-11 quickly became a civics lesson as we tried to summon our best efforts to our children’s wide-eyed questions. But how could we, who value liberty, wrap our minds around one of the greatest shames of civilization? An act of sweeping inhumanity, embedded in the deepest ignorance and dismissal of the sanctity of life…and communion…and diversity…and freedom.

Great tragedies ask many things of our leaders — commitment, compassion, confidence, political courage and faith. The President evoked them all.

In the earliest days following the attacks, he grasped the gravity of the moment and laid out the magnitude of the task. His leadership came on the three levels where it was needed most.

First, he consoled; with great emotion and compassion, the National Cathedral echoed with the great words and full heart of a man who summoned his faith and steadied a nation in grief.

Second, in the days ahead, the President reminded us who we are — an open, welcoming nation of immigrants, that would and did, with his leadership, offer an outstretched hand of reassurance to Muslim Americans, to one fifth of all humanity, the Muslim community around the world. Our enemy is not a peaceful religion. Terrorists speak for no one but evil. And evil, as our Commander in Chief made clear, would swiftly and surely be answered.

Third, and so very important in those early weeks after the attacks, the President gave us the gentle nudge we so desperately needed — the message that it was okay…and indeed necessary, to get back to the business of being Americans. And what is more American than the October classic? Baseball. The World Series was in New York City; and with the words of Todd Beamer’s “Let’s roll” still fresh in our national heart, the President wisely said “Play ball.” And it was then that an opening pitch became more than it ever was — a message to friend and foe alike that a way of life so unquestionably bound to freedom and progress and hope cannot be derailed by anyone, not in these United States of America.

To be sure: We have come a long way from the days when warfare was laid out with push pins on a map — and the theater of war last touched American soil.

While terrorism is not a new phenomenon, we must recognize that in the 21st century, it is different. From 9-11, 2001, in America…to 3-11 of this year, in Spain, we have seen the damage wielded by those who make loss of life the number one goal of their own.

We have witnessed the brutality of people whose arms are crossed so tightly in defiance, they cannot free themselves from the hatred that could instead be the hope of a better life; the intolerance that could instead be an invitation to a diverse and global community; the fear of change that could instead be the first footsteps toward economic opportunity and a better future.

Such entrenched and irrational ideology resides figuratively, and in some cases literally, in a cave — and is difficult to change…as centuries of terrorism have shown. But in our century, in our time, the message to terrorists has changed.

It has never been more clear and sure…and a country’s response has never been more decisive. As the President has said, America will not abdicate its freedom and security to anyone, ever. Instead, as many an enemy has discovered, we will meet the threat of terrorism, in the fullest throttle of response, wherever it seeks to hide — be it on foreign soil or on our own.

Three weeks from now, our nation will honor the veterans of previous wars. But today let us honor those who, at this very hour, are fighting around the world in the war against terror. Some of us here today are former soldiers who know the high cost of freedom; all of us here today are citizen soldiers who know the high reward of another’s sacrifice. With grace and gratitude, pride and prayers, we ask the heavens to welcome those servicemen and women who gave their lives for freedom — and watch over those still in battle. Our brave soldiers must know: America supports them and prays for their safekeeping. [pause]

Here at home, images of 9-11 still chill the spine but heat the passion of our nation. They are the force that motivates us to work every single day to protect our country from those who wish us harm. Nowhere is that more evident than in the daily tasks carried out by the men and women of Homeland Security.

It’s been just more than a year since 22 agencies merged under the umbrella of a new Department — 180,000 people all united under a single mission, to lead the coordinated effort to make the fullest protection of our people the highest charge of our nation.

During our first year, we made great progress in widening a base of protective measures to make this nation safer.

As many of you know, we significantly enhanced aviation security. We strengthened security at our borders — ensuring the free flow of good and people and giving our agents better tools to keep terrorists out. We added the “smart technology” of biometrics to help speed the entry of millions of legitimate travelers and halt the entry of terrorists and criminals. We also made important changes to our student visit program…so that foreign students who pose no threat to this country are not delayed upon entry. We want to make clear that freedom-loving students everywhere, and the skills and knowledge they bring to our campuses and country, are welcome and wanted.

This hard work of preparation and prevention has meant faster deployment of resources and manpower; greater information sharing among our partners; added layers of protection at our ports, borders and skyways…without doubt, a greater sense of purpose and preparedness for those who do this “hard work worth doing” every day.

America is a country of high expectations — and yet, we know that expectations cannot be met on the grounds of expediency — rather our actions must be measured by the threshold of excellence and ethics…and guided by priority and balance. We know that free nations are open and diverse and welcoming…not because that is the way of freedom, but because that is the will of free people. And so this nation must and will always be careful to respect people’s privacy, civil liberties and reputations. To suggest that there is a trade-off between security and individual freedoms — that we must discard one protection for another — to me is a false choice. You do not defend liberty to forsake it.

“True liberty” is the pure love of it, not merely the desire to be free — but to see it furthered from one generation to the next.

It is this like-mindedness among generations, this mutual commitment to an ideal, that has advanced a whole new philosophy of how we secure our country – a philosophy of shared leadership and shared responsibility. Homeland security is very much a national strategy — one that must be a priority in every city, every neighborhood, and every home across America.

And so perhaps, more than anything, keeping America safe and free in the 21st century is about the integration of a nation and nations – led by national leaders, but also governors, mayors, airline personnel, border patrol agents, the intelligence community, law enforcement, firefighters, business leaders, international partners and citizens everywhere. Your role, your relevance in this effort is especially important. Whether by preparing an emergency preparedness kit or volunteering to service on your neighborhood Citizen Corps Council, the opportunities abound for you to be empowered in your own safety.

I would not be a good government official if I didn’t take this opportunity to make a plug for public service. Whether an astrophysicist studying infrared astronomy…a Customs officer improving our port security, an FBI agent pioneering DNA forensics…or a chemist investigating the ozone layer…the work these bright, talented people do under the banner of public service today enriches the lives of countless individuals and will surely impact the world for generations to come.

But let me also say that public service doesn’t always mean that you receive a government paycheck. In this day and age, “work worth doing” can mean that you are contributing in ways that say “Let’s roll”….”Play ball”…ways that economically, socially and culturally keep your country moving forward.

I am the first Secretary of Homeland Security — and, given the breadth and complexity and deep roots of terrorism, likely not its last. I took on this position not unlike many of you, facing what some have called “an uncertain endeavor.” And yet, the future of this country is very much certain. From crisis to conflict, from security issues to social dilemmas, America has led the peace without ever changing the free republic that our founding fathers established nearly 228 years ago, nor the values in keeping with 10 generations of history — freedom, compassion, integrity, duty, honor, country.

Going forward, and with your help, we will advance as we always have — through the hard work of incorrigible pioneers, persistent visionaries, impassioned patriots…the stubborn goodness of a people that, generation to generation, continue to give all that is good and just and astonishing to their country. A people who embrace the most abiding of American principles – the notion that we are all called to serve as long as we call ourselves free.

Winston Churchill said — we shape our buildings; thereafter, our buildings shape us. That is especially true of America’s historic campuses.

Members of the Class of 2004: You are about to bring vast knowledge from a wonderful institution of learning into a world of new frontiers. And though you may soon forget the Socratic method, the names of 15th century kings, the hallmarks of iambic pentameter, or how to solve for “x” and “y”….you will always remember “the U.” And unlike the series finale of last night, “friends” will last a lifetime. Not in reruns, but in reunions and lasting friendships.

And when you do see each other, talk to each other, think of one another, I hope you will marvel at yourselves — for the children you nurtured, the business trends you evoked, the creativity you inspired, and the many channels of science and communication and discovery you held open for generations to follow.

May you enjoy a collective pride in the way in which you kept your country moving forward amid a historic moment and mission — the commitment and compassion and “hard work” you gave to it all — and the blessings it will most surely return to you. It will be the best prize in life.

Thank you again for inviting me to share this day with you. My heartfelt congratulations go out to you all.

May God bless as you go forward.