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Commencement Address -- Jed Rakoff '64

June 1, 2003
Honorary Degree Citation

I don't know that I ever felt quite so honored as when I received the letter from the College informing me that I was to receive this degree. Getting a first degree from Swarthmore was thrilling enough; but this time I don't even have to take exams.

However, there is one catch: the letter said I had to deliver to you, the graduating seniors, a five-minute "charge." Now, I always thought a charge was something reserved for dead batteries or light brigades, for arrest warrants or credit cards. So I hope I can still qualify for this degree if, instead of a charge, I give you a bit of history.

Specifically, I would like to tell you about the worst of all Swarthmore graduates. I know there are a number of candidates for this position (your freshman roommate perhaps?). But in my book the worst of all Swarthmore graduates — because he most betrayed what Swarthmore stands for — was A. Mitchell Palmer, class of '91... as in 1891.

After graduating from Swarthmore, Palmer launched a career as a progressive Democratic Congressman from Pennsylvania. In 1912, he played a key role in securing the Democratic Party nomination for Woodrow Wilson, and in return he was rewarded with various posts in the Wilson administration, ultimately becoming Attorney General in 1919. So far, so good.

But with the dislocations that followed World War I, 1919 was also a year of turmoil and upheaval abroad, and corresponding insecurity at home. In the summer of 1919, a Marxist or an anarchist — no one was quite sure which — blew himself up while attempting to detonate a bomb on Mr. Palmer's front lawn. Utilizing his broad powers as Attorney General, Palmer reacted with what came to be known as the "Palmer Raids." Beginning in the Fall of 1919 and continuing through the following May, he directed government agents, led by a very young but already zealous J. Edgar Hoover, to arrest, without warrants, literally thousands of Americans, mostly immigrants with leftist leanings. All of them were held without bail, and many were held incommunicado, without access either to counsel or to the judicial process. Where they were aliens, they were summarily deported; where not, they were frequently detained for prolonged periods on the flimsiest of charges.

At first no one protested. The general public supported the raids with patriotic fervor, and most politicians were afraid to dissent. Because most charges were dropped before the cases could be brought before judges, few judges had any opportunity to register their disapproval. Indeed, the Palmer Raids might have continued for years had not a group of prominent private citizens, most of them leaders of the bar in major U.S. cities, publicly denounced the raids in a report issued in the Spring of 1920 entitled "Illegal Practices of the United States Department of Justice." With the example of their courage on display, hundreds of other prominent citizens came forward to criticize the raids, public opinion turned, the raids ceased, and Palmer was disgraced.

Now why today — this day of joy and celebration at your own graduation — do I bother you with this history of Swarthmore's most infamous graduate? Because, as George Santayana so famously said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Ironically (and regretfully), no one today remembers George Santayana. But it does not take a Swarthmore education to figure out that the same combination of insecurity and xenophobia that led to the Palmer Raids — and to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, to the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II, and to McCarthyism in the 1950's — is alive and well in certain corridors of power today. Now as then, combating a real enemy also provides a convenient cover for limiting the rights of aliens and radicals... and who knows how many others.

Please do not misunderstand. I do not for a moment suggest that the threat of terrorism is anything less than real and significant. Nor do I suggest that, in combating it, any measure has yet been taken that approaches the sheer lawlessness of the Palmer Raids.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to understand how combating the terrorist threat justifies deporting hundreds of aliens without meaningful judicial review, or sending government agents to interrogate thousands of Americans on no better basis than that they are of Middle Eastern descent, or holding those Americans designated as "enemy combatants" incommunicado and without access to counsel before they have been convicted of anything, or jailing as so-called "material witnesses" more than fifty persons against whom no charge whatever has been lodged. If, in the name of combating terrorism, we so restrict our own freedom, have we not thereby lost part of the very battle we seek to win?

Among the periodic assaults on our freedom in the name of combating foreign threats, the Palmer Raids were perhaps unique in the way they so quickly collapsed once private citizens summoned enough courage to denounce them. It is one thing to speak one's mind in the protected cocoon of a college campus. But those who protested the Palmer Raids ran the risk of personal vilification, social ostracism, economic retribution, career destruction, and even possible criminal prosecution.

Pretty soon, you'll be part of that world of social pressures, and as those pressures mount, you will be able to find a hundred good reasons to remain silent. But if freedom means anything to you, please don't be silent. After you reach a considered judgment, please speak your mind, whatever the cost. In so doing, you will fulfill your alma mater's ideals and win the gratitude of all of us who believe that liberty is this great nation's most precious, and most vulnerable, treasure.