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Commencement Address by Rudolph Giuliani
(Different voice inflection) It’s very nice of all of you to invite me here to speak you with the families from different parts of the country and the world.
I’m sorry. I don’t need to do that. You know why I do that when I start speaking? It’s compulsive. I spent before I was mayor, I was the United States Attorney in New York, and I spent four thousand hours listening to men on tape talk that way. I used to sit in a little room listening to a tape recorder of members of organized crime and they would spend their time talking about their wives, their children, their families, just like everyone else. All of a sudden, just when you were about to fall asleep, you would hear them say something like, “Hey, we’re gonna whack that guy!” And you realize that you had to wake up and do something about it. So I kind of fall into that because it brings me back to those days.
I want to thank you very much for inviting me, and the Chancellor in particular who asked me would I be dissuaded by the fact there might be protests. I said actually, “No, I would feel at home.” (applause)
After getting elected mayor I realized I had $2.3 billion deficit in my budget. So one of the things I had to do in the first three or four months that I was in office, was to cut New York City’s budget dramatically in order to balance it. So it created a protest or two a day for about three or four months.
Finally one day a group showed up at City Hall protesting our budget. And one of our deputy mayors noticed that we had actually in this particular case increased the funding for this group by ten percent. They were getting two million dollars more in the new budget than in the old budget. He was very happy and he ran outside to the head of the protestors and he showed them the budget, the additional money he was getting. The guy said “Gee, thank you, that’s wonderful.” And then my deputy mayor said, “I hope maybe you’ll say something positive and end the protest.” The guy looked at the budget, he looked at all the protesters he had and said, “Well, we’re here now. We’ll do it for practice.” So we had the protest anyway, so I got used to it at that point.
The reality is that this is a very important day for all of you, and maybe even more so for your families. First, let me wish all of the mothers in the audience happy Mother’s Day. This is a wonderful day on which to have your child graduate.
And I know it’s impossible to focus on a graduation or a commencement now without asking a question, because you’re all moving out into the work world or further education, and there are lots of people who walk around nowadays saying that America is more dangerous than it was before September 11, that you have to face more dangers than you had in the past, you have to face realities that others didn’t have to face. I’d like to give you a different view of that.
The reality is that New York and America is not more dangerous than it was before September 11. The reality is that we are less dangerous and safer than we were before, because we’re dealing with reality now. We’re dealing with the truth.
Before September 11 we were living like there was a cloud, a veil in front of our eyes. We didn’t see what was going on in the world clearly or precisely enough. We didn’t understand that there was the kind of hatred for what we are and who we are that could inspire a monstrous attack like that. Maybe we partially understood it, maybe we understood it somewhat, but we didn’t understand it with the full drama with which we should have understood it.
And now we do. And in a way, just like human beings grow up and mature as they understand the realities of life, nations grow up and mature when they understand the realities they actually face. And now we’re doing that. We’re facing the reality, and you’re much stronger for it, both emotionally and in practicality, than you were before.
The reason for that is something that I realized maybe 45 minutes or one hour after the attack, after we were trapped in a building and were able to get out on the street, in between the time of the first and second towers collapsing. When I got out on the street, it was like being in a nuclear holocaust. It was cloudy, almost impossible to see and debris falling through the street. I was trying to communicate with people in New York City, to try to tell them to remain calm, that everything was being done that could be done and to evacuate to the north , because that’s what the head of the fire department, who died about 20 minutes after I talked to him, told me to do, Chief Gansey.
And as I was talking to the press and telling them what Chief Gansey had told me to say, I kept looking around while I was speaking to see how people were reacting. I wanted to see if they were panicking. I wanted to see if they were knocking each other over or hurting each other in panic and in fear. What I saw was that they were doing exactly what I was asking them to do. They were fleeing, they were weaving, they were moving quickly and in some cases they were running, but they weren’t panicking. They weren’t running each other over, they weren’t pushing each other aside. In fact, I could see examples of just the opposite. I could see people stopping and leaning over and helping other people, and pushing other people along, and being just as concerned for the safety of the people around them as they were for their own safety.
And immediately, even within 30 to 35 minutes of the collapse and extricating ourselves from a building, I began to get a sense of strength and optimism, that something was happening here that would overwhelm the ferociousness of this attack. And then later that day, as I thought about the enormity of the numbers of people that we had lost, including close friends of mine, and people that I love and care about and people I had seen 25 minutes before they died, as I was feeling the burden of that, I first saw a copy of a photograph that I know you’ve seen.
But it was the first time I really felt optimism and strength. And it was the photograph of the three firefighters who placed the American flag on top of six stories of fallen building. I knew what those firefighters were encountering. The flames there were 2,000 to 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. The flames were going on below them, and they were standing six stories above, and they raised the American flag, and it said to me right there emotionally that there’s nothing stronger than the spirit of a free people.
When we’re not attacked, when things are normal and easy, when things are the way we expect them to be, we take all of this for granted. We take the flag for granted, we take our democracy for granted, we take our religious freedom for granted, we take our respect for the rights of others and for law for granted, and we don’t realize that these rights don’t exist all over the world. We don’t realize that most human beings have lived through their entire lives without rights like this.
But when they attack us – and please, when you talk about September 11, do not talk about just a tragedy. It was not just a tragedy. A tragedy is a horrible natural occurrence. When you talk about September 11 and you remember it for the rest of your lives, remember that it was an attack, not just a tragedy. And remember why we were attacked, so we can respond properly.
We were attacked because we’re a country of beliefs and philosophy. There is no American ethnic group; we’re all ethnic groups. There is no American religion; we’re all religions, or none. There is no American race; we’re all races, and combinations of races.
So what are we? We’re not like the French or the Spanish or the Japanese or the Chinese, what are we? We’re people who believe in the same things. We’re people of belief, who have a philosophy that we’re proud of, that holds us together and gives us strength, and it’s a philosophy that we should hold dear.
And it becomes enormously important at points of attack. It doesn’t matter whether or not it’s the worst crisis of your life, or if it’s just a problem that you have to face. Please remember the two things that I think brought my firefighters and my police officers and my rescue workers and all of the others who saved thousands and thousands of lives, giving up their own, at the World Trade Center.
When I think of them, I think of one particular firefighter representing the others. He had gotten injured the day before September 11, and he was at the doctor’s office at 8 o’clock in the morning, because he wasn’t supposed to go to work that day. The doctor determined that he couldn’t go back to duty for several weeks because of the injuries he had sustained. Just as he was told that, he heard about the attack at the World Trade Center.
He was in Brooklyn, and he was told to go home and not to report to duty. Instead, he went to a fire house in Brooklyn that had been evacuated because they had gone to the World Trade Center. He went to the locker of another firefighter and took out his bunker gear, and put it on, and he left a note.
In the note he explained who he was and why he had taken the bunker gear, and then as an afterthought in the note he said, “Please tell my mother and father that I love them very much and that I owe everything to them, and tell my sister that I love her,” and he signed his name.
This is a man who had gone to thousands of fires, and never wrote notes before. I try to recreate in my mind what he did. He drove across the Brooklyn Bridge, and to drive across the Brooklyn Bridge on the morning of September 11, at about the time he was doing it, you had to feel that you were driving into hell. That’s what you saw, you saw an inferno unlike anything I could possibly describe to you, or any documentary could ever show you.
Well, he had every reason not to go. He was injured, he had been told not to report for duty, nobody could have ever criticized him if he didn’t go, no one could have ever held it against him, but he drove there. He went into the building, and he saved people twice, and then he entered the first building right before it collapsed, and he died.
But just think of the courage that he had. Not a lack of fear. When you think of courage, don’t think of a lack of fear. Courage is about being afraid, but being able to do what you have to do anyway. Courage is about seeing those flames, knowing the fear, knowing you’re going into the worst fire you’d ever face in your entire life, and knowing you may never return.
But it’s also understanding that you’re a firefighter, that you’re a big strong man like he is, that you can carry people down. Maybe I can’t do that, maybe you can’t do that, but he could do that – that’s what his life was about, that’s what he swore to do, that’s what gave him a sense of self-respect and self-esteem.
That’s what courage is about, it’s about managing your fears. Please remember that. You’re going to have to do it all your life. I have to do it, you have to do it. If you want to succeed, if you want to be happy, if you want to lead, you have to manage your fears. And don’t ever think it’s about the lack of fear. It’s about managing your fears.
When I think about firefighters and police officers, I think about the ones that I used to give awards to for bravery, for taking people out of the East River or climbing up to buildings and taking them down. Every once in a while, when I would give them the award, they would come up to the podium to speak, and they would become very nervous. Their hands would shake, and they would be unable to speak or answer questions. They were afraid. And it never ceased to amaze me, how could this man who just jumped into the East River and taken out a ten-year-old child and saved their lives, and put their life at risk, how come he’s afraid to speak?
I realized he hadn’t learned how to manage that fear. He wasn’t expected to speak, he didn’t take an oath to speak. That wasn’t his obligation, that wasn’t his duty. If you had that man do it three or four more times and he would have done it as well or better than any of us, because he would have learned to have managed his fears to do what you have to do. That’s the story of the one firefighter that I mentioned, the 342 others that lost their lives at the World Trade Center, the numerous police officers and rescue workers.
And it wasn’t just the firefighters and police officers and rescue workers who had this courage. There was a 70-year-old man whose family I met. He was on the floor that was hit, and he let people go down in the elevator, and they wanted him to come on the elevator. And he said, “No,” and he kept pushing people on the elevator and he said, “I’m 70 years old, I’ve lived my life. You’re younger, you need to still live your life.” He said that to eight or ten people. He sent them all down on an elevator, and there wasn’t enough time for an elevator to come get him. This was also a man who knew how to manage his fear, knew how to be courageous. So please, when you think about what happened at the World Trade Center and the terrible attack and the viciousness and the evilness of it, the stories of bravery and courage overwhelm it enormously.
Remember, if you want to succeed in life, there are two things you need. You need a belief, and you need courage. You need to know what you believe in, you need to believe in it strongly, like the firefighter did, or like the man who let the elevator go, who understood the importance of human life, who understood the importance of helping give other people the chance to live. Then you have to have the courage to act on those beliefs. If you have both of those things, you’re going to succeed.
You’ve been extremely well trained. You’re very fortunate young men and women — in some cases, not so young. People graduate at all different ages now. But in any case, you have tremendous advantages. Please consider that you’ve got to give something back in the future. Respect the idea of public service. And when you see our men and women in uniform, our police, our fire, our military, they are actually something a little bit more special. What they do for a living is to put their lives at risk, so that you can be safe in your office, you can be safe at home, you can be safe here in this building.
I thank you very much for the opportunity to be your commencement speaker. I am more than willing to conclude with the following chant, but before I say “Go Orange,” which I will conclude with, Go Yankees! But I will say Go Orange! Thank you.