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Headlines at Hopkins
Commencement 2002

Address by Tom Brokaw
Anchor and managing editor, "NBC Nightly News"
Undergraduate Diploma Ceremony
Krieger School of Arts and Sciences and
Whiting School of Engineering
The Johns Hopkins University

May 23, 2002

[Prepared text; not checked against delivery.]

One year ago the class of 2001 left this campus for a world far different than the future you face today. Just a year ago graduates were part of a society in which they were confident of their personal security, relished their personal freedoms, expected to cash in on a long, uninterrupted run for the gold in the American economy and rarely contemplated phrases such as patriotism, military service, Islam or, most of all, terrorism.

One year later personal and national security is an urgent and primary concern; freedoms have been restricted; the economy -- and the institutions that influence it -- are no longer virtual trust funds where everyone cashes in; patriotism and citizenship have been renewed as fundamental values; young men and women your age and younger are in uniform and in harm's way; terrorism is no longer an abstract but instead a terrible reality and a continuing threat.

Welcome to the world.

Before you sink into your caps and gowns in an implosion of self pity let me remind you of other times in which the world changed and it was all hands on deck, navigating through new seas by the stars for the old navigational charts were of little use.

Sixty years ago the class of 1942 left this campus for a world war for which the United States was pitifully prepared, except in spirit and resources. They faced the two mightiest military machines ever assembled on six of the seven continents, in all of the seas -- and in the skies. At home they converted domestic industries into war machines overnight and they bought war bonds to finance the effort, often with loose change saved in coffee cans.

When that war ended with the introduction of the nuclear age we faced another great struggle for survival, against an ideological and military foe completely alien to our most cherished ideals, a dangerous and oppressive enemy armed with enough nuclear power to destroy life as we know it.

Again, we were forced to find our way through the perilous waters in which we had no previous experience.

In 1963 we suffered a terrible self inflicted wound: our young President was assassinated, a single event that set off a chain reaction of social and cultural upheaval, a misguided military commitment abroad that strained our domestic bonds to the breaking point and left 57 thousand of our young on distant battlefields.

One President who delivered great social progress while sending waves of young Americans to their deaths in rice paddies and steaming jungles died a broken man. His successor, who promised peace and domestic tranquility and delivered neither, was forced to resign from office for committing felonious acts in the Oval office -- and for betraying the trust of a nation.

So we have been here before -- looking into the abyss of uncertainty, shaken by the unknown, grieving for the losses and shuddering at those still to come.

But we have always prevailed because in a time of crisis this immigrant nation rallies to become more than the sum of its parts. It finds power not just in its military might or its industrial and financial strength but most of all, in its people and their understanding of their duty as citizens which includes their obligation to examine, support but also question the policies of their elected leaders. To become citizen soldiers in the struggle to preserve national security without sacrificing individual liberty, to hold all elected public servants to a high standard that reflects the fundamental values of our political system.

To do that requires an active and engaged citizenry. To do that in the circumstances in which we're now living requires a full understanding of what we have been through and what is yet to come.

Nine one one was not just another dark day on the American calendar. It was the beginning of a challenge unparalleled in our history. It is a war against the festering notion that we are unworthy, that the essence of modern western civilization is an affront to Allah. It is not about the occupation of conquered lands or the clash of uniformed armies on distant battlefields.

It is a war against the innocent, here at home, wherever they maybe, simply because they are American citizens. It is not a war between sovereign nations.

It is a war of cultures, or the radical interpretation of one culture against another.

It is a war that will define much of your lives for it is not easily resolved.

The shocking events of nine one one shattered our collective illusion of security and well being.

We had been a nation living in a bubble of paper prosperity and political apathy in which the fundamental tenets of real value had been set aside for the quick fix.

On a clear September morning we were stunned by the violent intrusion of a terrible reality.

In a matter of moments we went from peace to war.

From a secure nation to a shell shocked society.

From a struggling economy to a free fall.

Then, flags flew.

A mayor arose from the ashes.

The President found his voice.

No one asked where is Colin Powell and what is he doing.

Donald Rumsfeld became the rumpled professor of war.

And everyone worried anew about Dick Cheney's heart condition.

We had a tidal wave of patriotism, God Bless America, a rare exhibition of political unity and a new appreciation of the role of cops and firemen.

It is an abrupt change from what you'd been led to expect in your lives. You are the personal computer generation and it is only natural that you'd come to believe that the answers to most of life's most vexing questions lie in the code, the software, hardware and on the internet of this transforming new technology that defines so much of your existence.

It is disorienting to see modern warfare being waged with the tools that are familiar to you -- laser guided weapons, computer generated virtual battlefields, cryptography on the small screen -- followed by warriors on horseback galloping across a scarred landscape to meet an enemy driven by a fanatical theological belief.

In fact, there is no delete button for what which we face. No cut and paste tools to rearrange the world as we wish. Tolerance can be neither downloaded nor uploaded through the most powerful computers available to us.

It will do us little good, then, to wire the world if we short circuit our secular souls.

We have to work harder at understanding an enemy who is eager to sacrifice their bodies to do great harm to what we hold dear. We have to find ways of establishing common ground with hundreds of millions of young Muslims who love our culture and hate our government, who envy our successes, disdain our pluralism and, most of all, who are enraged by our sense of entitlement.

Young Muslims who live in politically and economically oppressive regimes where they are influenced by devout but zealous and fanatical religious teachers as they are frustrated by the absence of economic and social opportunity.

If they are not the enemy now, they likely soon will be. In Baghdad recently, at a distinguished university, I came upon a ceremony not unlike this -- the best and brightest of Iraqi society, studying English language and literature, enthusiastic in their devotion to Whitney Houston and James Taylor and John Denver. And equally enthusiastic about joining the army so they could fight the United States government.

We cannot ignore them and we cannot kill them all so we must begin to understand their rage and deal with it in a new and more effective fashion.

For more than a hundred years the dominant religion on the world has been Christianity, representing about 30 per cent of the global population. Islam during that time has represented about 20 per cent. In the next 20 years or so that will change, if current trends hold, and Islam will represent the higher number.

So a primary challenge of your generation is to bank the fires of hostility now burning out of control, to neutralize the hatred, to expedite not just global competition economically and politically, but also global understanding.

It is a hard, complex task, but it is also exciting because it is an unparalleled opportunity to define your time and leave a lasting legacy.

Sixty years ago the class of 1942 left this campus for an equally daunting challenge: they were the young men and women who were expected to save the world from fascism east and west. The odds that they would succeed were difficult, at best.

They were taking up arms against the two most formidable military machines mankind had ever assembled. They were representing a nation that at the time, hard as this is to believe, was the 16th military power in the world -- the United States.

By the millions they put on uniforms and learned new skills, from piloting multi-engine bombers to parachuting behind enemy lines, from fighter planes to amphibious landings, from ships on the sea to submarines beneath the ocean. They invented new weapons and tactics on the run, they broke enemy codes and designed their own. They mastered one of nature's most awesome forces and used it to end the war -- and then to keep the peace.

At home, those not in uniform turned the country overnight into a war supply depot, stopping the production of cars and trucks to churn out tanks, warplanes and new vehicles for the transportation of materiel. Farmers grew more food and civilians ate less so the men in uniform would be well fed.

When it was over, when the peace had been won with millions of casualties, the class of 42 and their generational soulmates returned to America to rebuild their enemies, draw the line against Communist oppression, marry in record numbers, go to college in record numbers, give us new industries, new scientific discoveries, new laws to expand the rights of those who had been left behind too long.

They weren't perfect, by any means. They let racism be a fixed part of the American landscape for far too long; they were too slow to acknowledge the place of women as equal partners; some of them believed too much in war as an instrument of politics but others among them were the most eloquent critics of that thesis.

They're in their 70's and 80's now, this magnificent generation, what I call "the greatest generation," formed by a great depression, hardened by war, restless in their pursuit of peace and prosperity, driven to excel and constantly excited by the possibilities of tomorrow.

They are your grandparents.

They have given you a priceless legacy for your own unique and profound set of challenges. Remember them as you leave here to change the world and the circumstances you have inherited. Share their excitement in the opportunities before you, however taxing they may be, and most of all, anticipate the satisfaction of history's judgment that you did not fail.

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