In May, 2015, in an important speech on police community relations, FBI Director James Comey urged the law enforcement community to be vigilant to avoid the temptations to abuse their power.
“[B]ecause we have [great] power, we … need to constantly remind ourselves of the dangers of power. John Adams once wrote to Thomas Jefferson, “Power always thinks it has a great soul.” In my experience, people are at their most dangerous when they are certain their cause is just and certain their facts are right. Those in power must always remember that, teach that and reinforce that.
“The Holocaust . . . was the most horrific display of inhumanity . . . but it was also the most horrific display of humanity. Our capacity for evil and for moral surrender. People so easily allow themselves to surrender their moral authority to a group and allow the loudest voices, the lowest common denominator, to hijack that group. . . . That’s why I’ve continued the practice . . . of requiring every new FBI special agent in training and every new intelligence analyst in training to go to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. . . . to learn what abuse of authority looks like on a breathtaking scale. But I also want them . . . to confront something that is more personal, more painful and in some ways more frightening. I want them to see our humanity and what we are capable of as people. I want them to see that, although that slaughter of millions was led by sick and evil people, those sick and evil leaders were joined by and followed by people who loved their families, people who take soup to a sick neighbor. People who went to church and who gave to charity. Those good people, so-called, convinced themselves that this slaughter of millions of innocent people was the right thing to do. The thing they had to do. Ordinary good people did that and that should frighten all of us. It’s also the reason why I now require every new analyst and agent in training to study in a course dedicated to the FBI’s interactions with Dr. King. And it’s why as part of that curriculum they must visit the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington. [I keep the approved request of J. Edgar Hoover to wiretap Dr. King under glass on my desk] to remind me of what we in the FBI are responsible for and what we as humans are capable of and why it is vital that power be overseen, be constrained, be checked.
“Every morning I review the stack of requests that we’re about to send to the federal court to seek permission to wiretap people for a limited period of time in our national security investigations. Those applications are often as thick as my wrist or thicker. It is a huge pain in the neck to get permission to bug somebody in the United States and that’s the way it should be. That’s constraint. That’s oversight. That is power being checked. So if we admit that we are capable of the greatest inhumanity, that we are capable of surrendering our moral authority and of believing too strongly in our own righteousness, if we are willing to admit that our own humanity can be so imperfect and so very dangerous, we also have to recognize that we as a people are capable of the greatest care and consideration for each other and for our communities.
“We are ordinary people who are truly capable, despite all the flaws in our humanity, of extraordinary things. Particularly when we stand together. When everyday people think about the civil rights movement, they think about Dr. King or Medgar Evers or Malcolm X or John Lewis. Rosa Parks maybe. James Farmer. Bayard Rustin. But along with those famous folks, there were hundreds and thousands of foot soldiers. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things. People who walked calmly down the street in their Sunday best calling for equality. People who held hands and crossed a bridge walking step by step towards sheer hatred and violence. People risked their lives to take a stand and to right a wrong. . . . These were all ordinary people who understood deep down in their bones that we’re all tied together in a single garment of destiny.”