Piedmont High School Class of 2022 was treated to a remarkable commencement speech by former graduate and former U.S. Ambassador to Australia Jeff Bleich. Jeff’s speech was about courage, and from my point of view, timely and a must read. I have received permission from Jeff to print his talk to the graduates. Indeed, I am reprinting the last portion of his presentation. I encourage you to go online and read the entire commencement address. You will not be disappointed.
Which brings me to my last story; it’s both personal and political. And it’s about what happens without courage.
In 1999, I received a call from the White House. Thirteen high school students, people your age or younger, had been senselessly killed with assault weapons by two students in their class. It shocked our country. Then-President Clinton had been reading everything he could find about gun violence. Somehow he’d read an article I’d written with one of my professors years earlier.
The people at the White House said that President Clinton liked my article. He wanted to talk to me about heading up a youth violence commission to help prevent more school shootings.
My wife Becky and I had three young kids then. I had just made partner at a law firm, we had no savings (because, of course, we’d just bought a house in Piedmont), and I didn’t want to move to DC. So, I told the White House I wasn’t really qualified and that there were real experts out there who would be better than I was.
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A few days later, I got another call from the White House. They said the president wanted to see me. I flew to DC and met with President Clinton. It was the first time I’d ever met a president. And he asked me a very simple question. What would it mean to me, if someone else were willing to give up their job and do something difficult, simply because it might save the life of one of my children. I said it would mean everything to me. He said “If you do this job, it will mean everything to every other parent in America. Are you willing to give up your job if it might save some of their children’s lives?
There was only one answer to this.
So I left my job as a law firm partner. And I took the job.
For the next two years I worked all over America. I visited the shell-shocked communities where these shootings occurred. I sat with parents and saw the empty chair at their table — their daily reminder of the child who was never coming back. I visited parents like that in towns you have never heard of, in Jonesboro, and Springfield, and Paducah, and towns shattered and haunted by these shootings. It changed me forever. I can still see the pain and bewilderment on their faces. Those images will not go away. The question that haunted them all was “why?”
There were answers. And there were things we could do, just as they did in Australia. Americans weren’t genetically more violent than other people. We were just governed differently. There were things we could do that had worked in other countries. In fact, every other developed nation in the world has stopped these sorts of mass shootings.
So we provided that information to Congress — about the mental health and counseling programs that could help, public information campaigns about warning signs, about ways other nations restricted access to assault weapons, and required background checks for all gun owners, and kept guns away from people who were dangerous to themselves or others.
The only challenge we faced was that the NRA opposed background checks and the assault weapons ban. Some members in close elections might lose their seats over these measures. It would take courage. And some members of Congress would need to risk sacrificing their own jobs to potentially save the lives of someone else’s child. They had the same question that I had, and that those leaders in Australia had. “Would you be willing to give up your own job, to save a child’s life?”
But this time, their answer was “no.”
Instead, they voted to make assault weapons more easily available. The number of young people killed in our schools by gun violence after that year has kept growing. By 2012, it had tripled. Even in the face of 20 second graders and their teachers being gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School, they did nothing. Members of Congress who could have made a difference did nothing . . . except keep their jobs. In the 10 years since, there have been 900 more shootings on school grounds in America. Firearms are now the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 24. We have lost thousands of young people to senseless gun violence for one reason – because of the absence of courage.
And then this week it happened again. At Robb Elementary School.
And Senators who you’d think would finally tell us “enough is enough, take my job.” Instead tell us to take their thoughts and prayers.
But I haven’t lost hope. I have seen political leaders in every other modern nation risk the highest offices in their land to do the right thing. (Australia passed strict but controversial gun restrictions in 1996 after a mass shooting (and several politicians lost their seats) and there have been no mass shootings since).
But most of all, I have not lost hope, because I know courage exists in all of us, and calls out to all of us.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. believed that his life would be taken from him by violence long before his time. He received constant death threats throughout his brief life. He struggled with what this would mean for his wife, for his children, for those who had placed their faith in him. But he found peace in realizing that obeying his conscience was his only option. He simply could not live with the alternatives — cowardice, expediency, or vanity. He wrote “Cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expediency asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But conscience asks the question, is it right? And there comes a time when we must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because it is right.”
In my life, I’ve tried to live by these words. I’ve also received threats — death threats, anonymous letters under the door of my house, one plot against my life, a person who actually tried to drive their car through the gate of the embassy. Fortunately, he was driving a Peugeot sedan, so he didn’t do much damage. And I’ve received violent hateful messages for positions I’ve taken on public matters, or simply for holding a public office. I’ve worried a lot about my wife and kids. And I’ve also missed out on some dreams. I had hoped to be a federal judge one day, and I was advised that I would lose that chance if I kept speaking out on gun violence. But for me, I found peace in the words of Dr. King. Would I stand for what I believed in, or would I sit in that safe office I coveted regretting for the rest of my days that I’d stayed silent and simply done the convenient thing?
I don’t say this to suggest that I’ve done anything special. I didn’t. I haven’t done anything more than any decent person would do. And so that is my advice to you. Listen to that voice of decency in your head. There is an impulse for justice and for freedom that exists in each of us, that is in constant battle with our fears. But the history of human progress is the history of people listening to that voice in their head. A woman in Ukraine confronts a Russian soldier. An Afghan girl attends a school. A black man sets foot on the Edmund Petrus bridge and walks toward clubs and guns and dogs. A Chinese student steps in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square. A young person comes out. A protester raises a sign.
So when the day comes when you are asked “would you give up your job to save a child’s life?” listen to that voice in your head. Courage is everywhere and it is in all people. Courage is what challenges us. Courage is what defines us. Courage is what sustains us.
That courage is within you, the resilient class of 2022. Go forward and let it inspire others.
Of course, Jeff’s speech on gun violence and sensible gun laws and the courage to address our epidemic of mass shootings, also applies to our former president and his “Big Lie” trying to change the outcome of the 2020 election as convincingly documented in the ongoing Jan. 5 insurrection hearings.
Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter Simon licensed in California, with offices in Truckee and Tahoe City, California, and Reno. These are Jim’s personal opinions. Jim’s practice areas include: real estate, development, construction, business, HOA’s, contracts, personal injury, accidents, mediation and other transactional matters. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://www.portersimon.com.