UD Remembers 9/11

U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Chairman, Foreign Relation Committee
UD Class of 1965

University of Delaware Forum: Respect & Understand
Sept. 19, 2001
Bob Carpenter Sports/Convocation Center

Following are excerpts from Sen. Biden's remarks, used with his permission.

Thank you very much.

President Roselle, Mrs. Roselle.

Father Szupper, thank you for your prayers.

Student speakers, students, professors.

I was thinking as I sat on the stage that it was 40 years ago, god-awful 40 years ago, not too many blocks from here, up in the old student Scrounge, not as many of us [as here] but as many as could, were in the basement of the Scrounge, where there were pool tables and a big television. And, we were packed to the point that the city fire marshal would have emptied the building, hushed, as a young president sat behind a desk with maps behind him, telling us we were in a moment of crisis, for the Russians had put nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba, or were about to. It wasn’t totally certain. And we looked at the maps, and I can remember all of us calculating: Can those missiles reach Delaware? Not figuratively, literally. And, knowing if they did, we would all be annihilated. Not a hundred of us, not 5,000 of us, but tens of thousands and millions of us. And, we know, after the fact, how perilously close we came to that showdown with Russia over Cuba and missiles.

Ralph [Begleiter] indicated to me, and he’s absolutely right, that this is a day for the students. I’m here for one reason and briefly. With the permission of the president of the University, I’ll come back at any time and sit in any forum and answer questions for as long as students or faculty have them. I’m not certain I’ll have the answers to all of the questions, but I’m prepared to do that. Today’s not the day for that, at least in terms of my role. My role is, as I see it and after a brief discussion with President Roselle, simple and straightforward.

And, it’s to tell you: Have faith. Be not afraid. This is not a time for fear. This is time for a sense of proportion.

You are going to hear from experts on terrorism. I’ve had the benefit of having them and others—the leading experts in the world—sit with me and the Intelligence Committee in rooms that are closed, that are constructed in such a way that there can be no eavesdropping—for 10 years when I was on the Intelligence Committee and, for the last 25 years, on the Foreign Relations Committee. I have what they call a STU, which is a secure phone, in my home that I can speak with—and I have—with the president and the secretary of state and the national security advising team, and George Tenet of the CIA and the FBI. You’re going to hear about terrorism. Put it in perspective. Don’t let yourself get carried away. What happened was horrible. Some have called Sept. 11 a “Second Day of Infamy.” Some are telling you that it will change our way of life. I’m here to tell you it will not, cannot, must not change our way of life.

It is the beginning of the end of the way of life for international terrorist organizations—not ours!

I’m telling you, we’re not talking about a Soviet army of millions of people; we’re not talking about the Japanese empire; we’re not talking about 50, 100, 200 thousand people. We’re talking about tens and hundreds of people for whom we can suck the oxygen out of the air that they breathe if we change a couple things, but not our way of life.

There is one parallel between that Day of Infamy when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and these madmen, these deranged people, who have attacked innocent civilians. Admiral Yamamoto was prescient on the day of that [Pearl Harbor] attack. Do you know what he said to his fellow officers in Japan? He said, “We have sown the seeds of our own destruction. We have awakened a sleeping giant. We have filled it with a terrible resolve.”

That is what has happened here. A sleeping giant has been awakened, and the American people and the civilized world have been filled with a terrible resolve.

I received a copy of a letter, and I hope Mrs. Roselle will forgive me for reading it, a letter that was sent by the Roselles’ son, Arthur, to them. I became aware of this when I called Dr. Roselle and I said, “The students have got to understand. They listen to these commentators about how this is the end of the world and the end of our way of life. It’s the wrong message.”

And, then, he read to me what I wish I had written about the present situation. Arthur Roselle, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., wrote, in part: 

The press has provided around-the-clock coverage of this event, and we have repeatedly been told that our country will “never be the same,” that on Tuesday we lost our “innocence.” Unfortunately, we have heard that refrain several times before, and it is nonsensical due to its sheer repetition. After all, we supposedly had long since lost our innocence in Vietnam, JFK, Watergate, Beirut, Oklahoma City and countless other media frenzies. The flaw in all these dire predictions, past and present, is the concept that America is a nation of glassy-eyed innocents in the first place. The United States of America is unique in the history of humankind, and its survival has been guaranteed not by its innocence, but by its character and its resilience. Unlike most nations, ours was not created from geography or religion or language or any other factor of convenience. Ours is a diverse nation of seekers, who left other lands to overcome adversity in America. They risked everything for the opportunity to create a better life. Far from being innocent, ours is a nation whose people are largely descended from oppression or hardship. These individuals, through sheer will and effort, became part of this country, this different and special place, and started over. The democracy and freedoms that we have today were not stumbled into through innocence or luck. Instead, they were built from experience and a deep and wary understanding of human nature and its capacity to do evil. We are shocked by Tuesday’s act, but we are not surprised, for we have seen and fought evil on a worldwide scale, throughout our nation’s existence. As we have fought evil, we have preserved our constitutional rights, our values that are so important to America. We have preserved our values, and we have won these battles in the past, and we must—and we will—win this one as well.
I think that Arthur Roselle has it dead right—flat dead right.

Make no mistake about it—the terrorists have ruthlessly attacked not the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but our way of life. That is their purpose. That is their purpose—to change our way of life—not to take down two buildings and the Pentagon or kill thousands of people. Their purpose is to change our way of life. You will hear from some very brilliant women and men why many of the [terrorists] feel the way they do, why they are disaffected, and we should take all that into account in seeking a solution to our problem. But, make no mistake about it—it is our way of life that they are attempting to change.

One thing which has changed is the nature of the threat and the enemy who poses these threats. They’re no longer easily identified. They wear no uniforms and they’re not armed with traditional weapons. What they hope most for, by the way—to reinforce in the shaky minority they have in the Islamic world—is they hope we turn on all those in this country who look as though they are Arabic. They hope we turn on anyone who practices Islam. For that is the propaganda they need to make the case to a relatively small minority of people in the world that we are the bad guy.

So, my first plea to you, and it is a plea: Do not aid and abet them. Do not yield to your fear or any sense of prejudice you may have welling up in you. Do not make the mistakes that we have made in the past. Show the world who we are. And, thus far, we have. Why is it that everyone, including me, is talking about Rudy Giuliani? It’s not merely because he’s organizing the recovery. He has repeatedly, repeatedly, repeatedly—in the face of the most abject face of hell you’ll see on Earth—reminded Americans and New Yorkers: Don’t look at people differently. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. For if you do, and I expect none of you will, you will be adding to the bombing. You’ll be adding to the effect of the attack. You will be helping make the case that they hope to make.

They’re stealth-like, they’re dedicated and they’re fanatical in their cause. But, they have underestimated us. With one horrific act, they may have done what no one else could do, something even they could not have anticipated and probably did not intend. And that is that they have united every American. They’ve not only united every American, they’ve united our allies, but even more than that, they have united those with whom we do not have particularly good relations.

I’m receiving calls from the North Korean officials. I’m receiving calls from Pakistan. I’ve met for an hour and half in my office with the number-two man in Pakistan who helped create this very monster.

And, I might add, we helped create the Taliban, because we did what every other nation was doing and is now about to come to an end: We played geopolitics. You know, up until this horrific act, China could, with some degree of satisfaction, play their geopolitical game with Pakistan and get some solace from it. Russia could do it with Iran. Others could do it with other countries. But, I can tell you from the calls from heads of state that I’ve received, every head of state could see that second airplane—which was most vividly depicted—moving into the Eiffel Tower, crashing into a 102-story building in Shanghai, taking out a mosque in another country, taking down a national symbol in any other country. What the world has come to realize is this is a battle between nationhood and chaos. They are not uniting with us out of a newfound zeal for democracy or human rights. This is the most cohesive of efforts when it occurs. It’s born out of self-interest. The self-interest we should, and to his great credit the president has begun, to take advantage of.

Whoever did this, however much they hedge, deny or sidestep their involvement or condemn the attack, all terrorist groups and states financing and harboring them have to share responsibility for the madness of even contemplating, let alone condoning, this attack.

A number of you students have called me. Several of you, believe it or not, I’m still young enough to know, and you’re worried about a war, all this talk of war. I worried about a war—matter of fact, one occurred when I was here. But, this is not that kind of war. If you notice, Gen. Powell has changed the rhetoric today, rightfully so. This is not a war in the traditional or conventional sense. You’re not going to see hundreds of thousands of military amassing, ground troops invading and a call up of all of you and a reinstitution of the draft, to send you off somewhere. Although I have no doubt, I might note parenthetically, if I hear one more commentator talk about your generation not being up to it! I have had it up to here! I want to remind you—I’m serious, I’m not being solicitous—I want to remind you that all of Europe, including the British army, was literally swimming in the English Channel before any of the “greatest generation” did anything. But, once we were attacked, that generation that did, in fact, come to deserve the title, “the greatest generation in our history,” rose up. And the reason they were the greatest is they faced the greatest challenge. That’s why they were the greatest.

But they were no better than you! They’re no different than you. And I don’t have the slightest doubt in my mind. If I get asked one more time on Larry King or Meet the Press or CNN Town Meeting, I think I’m going to strangle the person who asks me the question, because every single generation in this country that’s been faced with a serious challenge has risen to the occasion. The only difference is you’re a hell of a lot smarter than we were. That’s the only difference.

This isn’t a time for vengeance. This isn’t a time for fear. This is a time to keep going, not to retreat; to mourn those who died, but not to despair. It’s a time for resolve, but not remorse. But most importantly, it’s a time to unite and not debate, because we all know what we have to do.

No matter what you hear today or tomorrow from me if I come back, and from everyone else, cut through it all. There are three things that are self-evident that we have to do.

The first is don’t make these guys bigger than they are. Don’t do what we’ve always done. When I got out of school here, I was a United States senator seven years later, and all that generation told me about and the experts I’d hear were about how the Soviets were 10 feet tall and how they were so powerful and they were so overwhelming. And, they didn’t look, jeez, they didn’t look 10 feet tall to me. They looked a little bit shorter than me. They looked not as robust as me. I wrote a report in 1979 predicting the end of the Soviet Union because it couldn’t sustain itself. And, everybody in my staff said, “Oh, God, don’t file that. You’ll end your career.” Actually, it was 1977, and the rise of Euro-Communism, you remember that. “Euro-Communism is coming back.” But I sat in that same Intelligence Committee and I saw things like they stole a very sophisticated computer from us 18 months earlier and we couldn’t find it. Guess what! We found it though satellite imagery sitting on a dock in Vladivostok. They hadn’t even taken it out of the box because they didn’t know how to work it. They didn’t even know how to catapult planes on and off aircraft carriers. Don’t make them bigger than they are. They did a horrible thing, and they got lucky. And, they can do harm again. But they are no great juggernaut.

The second thing we have to do is focus on the things we can do at home. Some of them are a pain in the neck, and now’s not the time to remind people of it. I’ve been talking about this for eight years. I’m in the midst of holding hearings on homeland defense. We are having this half-a-trillion-dollar nightmare that we’re going to build a national missile defense. For what purpose? When we have $30 billion underfunded because the Russians have all these chemical weapons stored in houses that look like giant outhouses with padlocks on them. And they say, “We can’t control it. Can you help us? Can you come and take this for us?” And, we say, “No, they’re still basically ‘commies.’ We don’t want to do that.” We know we have a public health system that cannot sustain a massive biological or pathogen being released. We know there are antidotes to many of the things that are out there that have been developed that we aren’t spending money on. There’s a lot of things we can do, from making our airports safer without denying us our civil liberties to changing our laws, like the bill we introduced in 1995 that now finally everybody wants—the anti-terrorism bill—that deals with the realities of wiretaps today as opposed to before. There’s a lot we can do. But, we don’t have to change our way of life when we do it.

And the third thing we know we have to do if we’re going to win this struggle—not war, this struggle—is we have to do it multilaterally. It cannot be done alone. They cannot be allowed to breed, if you will, in an environment that looks the other way, allows their camps, allows them transport, gives them intelligence.

Am I saying to you if we do all these things there won’t be some madman who will strap dynamite to his body, walk in a restaurant and blow himself up? No. I’m not saying that. But you have as much chance, listen to what I say here: You have as much chance of being injured by a terrorist attack as you do being struck by lightning. You have a better chance of getting brutalized if you walk up on Aramingo Avenue right now than you do if you live the next 20 years in this country from a terrorist attack.

Put it in perspective! Because if we don’t, if we don’t, they will prevail. We don’t fly; they win. Airlines go under; they win. We don’t put our markets back in shape; they win.

I’m not saying it’s irrational to be fearful. It’s a horrible thing that’s happened. But, I’ll tell you one thing—you want to talk about courage--20 minutes before I came down here I got off the phone with a very good friend of mine and he gave me permission to say this. His name is Davis Sezna. Those of you who are Delawareans, he owns the Columbus Inn, he owns the Hartefield Golf Course. Davis’ son was tragically killed in the Delaware and Chesapeake Canal in August or July of last year in a boating accident, and Davis was with him. Davis’ oldest son was in the 102nd floor of the World Trade Tower, the second one, and is missing and presumed dead. If there’s anyone who has reason to despair, if there’s anyone who has reason for anger, if there’s anyone who has reason to fear because lightning has struck twice in his life, it’s Davis Sezna. And, he says, “I’m willing to go and stand with you anywhere, any time, any place and tell people, ‘Don’t be afraid.’”

There’s more to say, but we conclude with this. It’s time to be protective at home, to strengthen our more earthbound homeland defenses. We need to bolster our health organizations at federal, state and local levels to be able to respond to the possibility of biological or chemical attacks so there is minimal damage. We need to be vigilant in detecting and dealing with pathogens. We need to increase our intelligence capabilities, which we have let go too long. We have to convince some of you brightest students that being part of an agency like the CIA—because you can speak Farsi or you can speak dialects of Chinese or you can speak any number of languages—it’s important and it’s a public service. These are the kinds of things we need to do to deal with this enemy.

We do not yet know how many people lost their lives in these attacks last week. What we do know is that the victims were unarmed. They were no threat. They were civilians. They didn’t represent a cause or ideology. They represented a vast cross-section of America, races and beliefs. And guess what, folks, more Pakistanis were killed in this attack than any other terrorist attack. More Brits were killed than any other attack. More Indians were killed in this attack than any other attack in India—300 in that tower.

So, in the name of all truly God-fearing men and women, we have to unite the world and end this threat decisively and once and for all.

To the loved ones of the victims, there is nothing really we can say to erase this tragedy. And, those of you who think it’s presumptuous of me to say that… in a different circumstance, I got one of those phone calls. I got one of those phone calls like Davis Sezna got. I got a phone call saying, “Your wife’s dead; your daughter’s dead.” And I’ve only said that three times in public before. But, I say it here because it’s so important for you to understand. I got one of those phone calls. It was an errant driver who stopped to drink instead of drive and hit a tractor-trailer, hit my children and my wife and killed them. It wasn’t an airplane, but it was a phone call: “They’re dead.” And, I can tell you from experience, and some of you can, too, that feeling that inside your chest is a black hole and you’re being sucked inside it. I know from experience there’s nothing in the near term we can do to bring solace, relief or peace to those people.

But, there is a lot we can do, and another time will be the time to speak to it.

Let me leave you with a quote from “The Cure of Troy” by the Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney. I’ll just read one paragraph. It’s my favorite. And I believe this is appropriate and will happen now. I believe it with every fiber in my being. He wrote,

History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

Hope…and history are about to rhyme. This is not the end of our way of life. It’s the end of the way of life of international terrorist organizations. Be strong. I’m proud as hell of you. You’re better than any generation that’s come down the pike. Don’t let them win.

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