Barbara K. Olson Memorial Lecture

by: Theodore B. Olson  

November 16, 2001

Federalist Society
15th Annual National Lawyers Convention

As you have been told, the Federalist Society envisions that the Barbara K. Olson Memorial Lecture each year will address the ideals and principles that the Federalist Society holds dear and that Barbara cherished: limited government, liberty and freedom.

I felt that it would be fitting to inaugurate this series with some words about Barbara, why she died, and how much of her life and death were interwoven with those very principles that will animate the lecture series in her name.

On September 11, 2001, Barbara Olson and thousands of other Americans were murdered.

There were victims from other nations that day as well, but they were accidental casualties. Barbara and her fellow Americans were the targets; selected at random to be slaughtered that day precisely because they were Americans.

And the places of their deaths were carefully chosen for what they meant to America, and to the world about Americans, and because they were unique symbols of America's vitality, prosperity and strength.

The World Trade Center Towers were an emblem of America's largest and most prosperous city and an internationally recognized symbol of America's leadership in commerce, free enterprise and international trade.

The Pentagon was an even more fitting target for the perverted minds that planned this day of terror. Construction on it had begun precisely 60 years earlier, on September 11, 1941, as America was awakening to the nightmare of Adolph Hitler and Nazi terror in Europe. Since its construction, the Pentagon has stood for the power, strength and seeming invincibility of a free people. It has been the place from which America, again and again, sent its men and women to fight and die to save not only our own citizens, but millions of others as well, from tyranny, oppression, brutality and murder.

One additional symbol of America, the Capitol I believe, was spared that day only because the brave Americans on that fourth aircraft did what Americans instinctively do when their lives and their country are threatened. They fought. They died, but they saved the lives of countless others and averted an even greater and barely imaginable tragedy.

Barbara Olson had less time, and maybe not as many resources, as the heroes on United Flight 93 that was brought down in Pennsylvania short of its target. But the moment her flight was hijacked, she began to try to save herself and her fellow passengers. She somehow managed (I think she was the only one on that flight to do so) to use a telephone in the airplane to call, not only for help from the outside, but for guidance for herself and the flight crew in the battle that she was already undertaking in her mind. She learned during those two telephone conversations that two passenger jumbo jets had already that morning been turned into instruments of mass murder at the World Trade Center. So she knew the unspeakable horror that she was facing -- and I know without the slightest doubt that she died fighting -- with her body, her brain and her heart -- and not for a moment entertaining the notion that she would not prevail. Barbara died therefore not only because she was an American, but as one more American who refused to surrender to the monstrous evil into whose eyes she and her fellow countrymen stared during those last hideous moments.

September 11, 2001 was unprecedented in our nation's history. Our country has been attacked before. Our soldiers and innocent citizens have been the victims of terrorism before. But never before in our history have so many civilian citizens, engaged in the routines of their daily lives, who neither individually nor collectively had done anything to provoke the savage attack that they were to experience that day, been brutally murdered for the simple reason that they were Americans, and because they stood, in their countless individual lives, for all the things that America symbolizes.

As President Bush immediately recognized, September 11 was an act of war. But, as he has also explained, it was much more than that. It was also a crime, an act of pure hatred and unmitigated evil. It was a ruthless, brutal, intentionally malignant attack on thousands of innocent persons.

Think of the sick calculation that gave birth to these acts. The victims were persons of all races, backgrounds, religions, ages and qualities. They had one thing in common. They were Americans, Americans who believed in the values that their country stands for: liberty, democracy, freedom and equality. Their lives were cruelly extinguished because they were the living embodiment of the aspirations of most of the world's peoples. The people who killed them, and who planned their death, hate America and Americans for that very reason. They despise America and the beacon that America holds out to people who are impoverished, enslaved, persecuted and subjugated everywhere in the world. The men who planned the savage acts of September 11 cannot prevail, they cannot even long exist, as long as American ideals continue to inspire the very people they hope to tyrannize and enslave. Hence they have declared war, in fact they have declared hatred, on this country and the values that we hold dearest.

It is a cynical lie that the animals that killed our loved ones two months ago were motivated by Islam, or because this nation of ours is anti-Islamic. Among our most cherished values, enshrined in the First Amendment to our Constitution, is freedom of conscience, liberty of expression and the free exercise of religion. This continent was populated by people who surrendered their homes and crossed a terrifying ocean to reach a rugged and inhospitable frontier in order to escape religious persecution and to seek religious freedom.

From its birth, this nation and the American people have offered sanctuary and shelter to persons of all faiths. Our Constitution -- always with the support of our people -- has again and again extended its embrace to the unpopular, the unusual, the unconventional and the unorthodox. We protect not only those who will not salute our flag, but those who would spit upon it or burn it. We regularly pledge our allegiance to a constitution that shelters those who refuse to pledge their allegiance to it.

Far from tyrannizing those who worship a particular God or embrace a particular religion, we protect those who worship any God - or no God. Indeed, Americans have defended with their lives persons whose religious convictions preclude them from taking up arms to defend the same Constitution that gives them the right to refrain from defending it.

It is true, I suppose, that there are many in the Middle East who hate this country for its support of Israel. But how tragic and misguided to despise us for extending comfort and defense to a people who have so long, and so recently, been the victims of indescribable ethnic persecution. Nor has America's support for Israel ever been rooted in or manifested by hostility to the Muslim faith or those who practice it. The terrorists and their apologists have lied about these things, but what is another lie when their goals and tactics are so vastly more evil?

So, while the terrorists of September 11 invoke the name of Islam, that is simply a mask for their hate, envy and despicable ambitions. The terrorists who seek to destroy us do so because America and Americans are everything that their hatred and motives prevent them from being. They are tyrants, and so they hate democracy. They are bigots and religious zealots who persecute Christians and Jews and Hindus and Buddhists and women. So they must hate America because America stands for tolerance and freedom and respect for all races, all religions, and all peoples, regardless of their sex, color, national origin or accent. They are despots who will not permit children to go to school. So they must hate the nation that commits vast resources to the education of its children, and whose Supreme Court has said that free public education cannot even be withheld from those who are in this country illegally.

These terrorists can succeed only through corruption, cruelty and brutality. Thus they hate and must tear down America and its system of laws which shields its people from those malevolent acts. And these terrorists can enslave the people they wish to subjugate only by keeping them poor and destitute, so they must undermine and discredit the one place in all the world that stands the most for the rule of law and individual liberty and that allows its people - and the people who flock here daily by the thousands -- the opportunity to rise above all those conditions.

Abraham Lincoln was paraphrasing our declaration of independence when he characterized our nation as having been "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." That revolutionary document set down our collective belief in unalienable human rights to liberty, freedom and equality, the proposition that governments derive their powers from the consent of the governed, the principle that tyrants who would oppress their people are unfit to be rulers of a free people, and the right to the pursuit of happiness. How can these terrorists ever prevail if these American ideals are not only allowed to be expressed, but to succeed so dramatically, and to inspire so many people throughout the world for so many centuries?

The answer is simple, the terrorists of September 11 cannot prevail in a world occupied by the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and its Bill of Rights, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, the Statue of Liberty, the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, the Capitol, the Supreme Court, and the White House. They cannot co-exist with these ideals, these principles, these institutions and these symbols. So they cannot survive, much less prevail, in the same world as America and its people. So they must try to destroy America, and the principles for which it stands.

We do not claim that America has been or is today without imperfections and shortcomings. Our constitution was undeniably flawed at its origin. Implementation of our lofty ideals has never been without error, and some of our mistakes have been shameful. But the course of our history has been constant, if occasionally erratic, progress from the articulation of those lofty ideals to the extension of their reality to all our people - those who were born here and those, from hundreds of diverse cultures, who flock to the American soil because of those principles and the opportunities they promise.

Reflect on the fact that there is no segment or class of the world's peoples who have exclusive claim on the term "American," and no segment of the world's population to whom that claim has been denied. We welcome 100,000 refugees per year into this country. Over 650,000 people immigrated legally to America in the most recent year for which we have reliable statistics. Over 5,000,000 people are in this country today who were so desperate to come here that they did so illegally.

There are more Jews in New York city than in Israel. More Poles in Chicago then any city in the world except Warsaw. America is home to 39 million Irish-Americans, 58 million German-Americans, 39 million Hispanic-Americans and nearly a million Japanese-Americans. And there are seven million Muslims in America, nearly the population of New York City.

How tragic it is that the agents of the September 11th terrorist acts were people whom we welcomed to this country, and to whom we extended all of our freedoms, the protections of all of our laws, and the opportunities this country affords to everyone to travel, work and live. But, we welcome immigrants because nearly all of us are immigrants or descendants of immigrants who came here to enjoy America's freedoms, rights, liberties, and the opportunity, denied elsewhere, to pursue happiness and prosperity. People from all places on the globe give our country its identity, its diversity and its strength.

Ronald Reagan often said that "every once in a while, each of us native born Americans should make it a point to have a conversation with someone who is an American by choice." "A few years back," he said, "a woman who had fled Poland wrote a letter and said: 'I love America because people accept me for what I am. They don't question my ancestry, my faith, my political beliefs . . . . I love America because America trusts me.'"

President Reagan was also fond of quoting from a letter he had received from a man who wrote, "You can go to live in Turkey, but you can't become a Turk. You can't go to live in Japan and become Japanese, [and so on for Germany, France, etc.] But . . . Anyone from any corner of the world can come to America and be an American."

So it is particularly sad and a bitter irony that the 19 savages who took the lives of thousands of Americans on September 11 were able to come here because we welcomed them, and trusted them, and allowed them to learn to fly our airplanes and the freedom to travel. And they took these precious gifts and turned them into instruments of hatred and death. How perverse and twisted. How incredibly sick they must have been - that not one of them had a moment of conscience after all that time in this beautiful and free country. Everywhere they looked they saw Americans and immigrants to America, at work and at play exercising the freedoms and opportunities that this country offers unstintingly to everyone, including them. But their hatred was so intense, their malignancy so advanced, that they never, as far as we know, even for a moment, paused to reconsider the despicable, unconscionable and evil acts they planned to inflict on the people they were walking, working and living amongst.

It has, I suppose, always caused some resentment that we believe so passionately and so unquestioningly that freedom, equality, liberty, democracy and the rule of law are concepts and rights that should belong to all people. But how can that be seen as arrogance, as some have called it? I simply cannot accept that. What can possibly be wrong with the aspiration that moved the founders of this country to believe that people are entitled to self-determination, the right to chose their system of government, the right to freedom within an orderly and secure society, and the maximum liberty to pursue happiness and fulfillment? We know that these are enduring values. We can debate nearly everything else, but we don't need to debate that. We know that these principles lift everyone up. And we know that these principles are only questioned by those who would seek to advance their own twisted agendas by withholding freedom, liberty and prosperity from others.

We have now been reminded, in the most horrible way, that there are those who not only hate our principles, but who would dedicate their lives - and surrender their lives - to banish those ideals and the incentives they provide for tyrannized and impoverished people everywhere to do what Americans did in 1776.

We have tragically learned again, in the most unthinkable fashion, that our values and our principles are neither self-executing nor self-sustaining, and that we must sacrifice and fight to maintain what our forebears sacrificed and fought to bequeath to us.

And now the rest of the world is learning again that Americans will not flinch from that fight or tire of it. Americans will fight, they will sacrifice, and they will not give up or leave the job unfinished. This war is for all living Americans. It is for the parents, grandparents and great grandparents that fought and sacrificed to come here. And it is for our children and generations to come. And it is for those who choose to become Americans in the future.

America will not lose this war because we cannot tolerate, we cannot contemplate, we cannot even consider that we will lose what centuries of Americans fought to create, improve and maintain. We cannot, and we will not, betray the people who gave us this glorious heritage. We cannot and will not, dishonor or wash away the memories of those who somehow clawed their way out of poverty, tyranny and persecution to come to this country because it was America, and because they were willing to risk death to become Americans, and to give their children and grandchildren the opportunity and freedom and inspiration that makes this place America. Americans could no longer call themselves Americans if they could walk away from that legacy.

People who write regularly for newspapers and who offer opinions on television, or who send advice to us from other parts of the world, sometimes say that America is too rich, lazy, complacent, frightened, soft and enervated to fight this fight. That we have no stamina, strength, will, patience, or steel. That we will collapse.

They are so wrong. We will prevail for the very reason that we have been attacked. Because we are Americans. Because the values that made us free, make us strong; because the principles that made us prosperous, make us creative, resourceful, innovative, determined and fiercely protective of our freedoms, our liberties and our rights to be individuals and to aspire to whatever we choose to be. Those values and those characteristics will lift us and will defeat the black forces who have assaulted our ideals, our country and our people.

The very qualities that bring immigrants and refugees to this country in the thousands every day, made us vulnerable to the attack of September 11, but those are also the qualities that will make us victorious and unvanquished in the end. These dreadful, despicable people have hurt us, but they can never conquer us.

So let me return to Barbara Olson. So many people loved and admired Barbara. But whether you loved and admired her values, her spunk, her energy, her passion, her courage, her unconquerable spirit, or her incredible warmth, whether you knew it or not, underneath it all, you admired and were captivated by Barbara because she was pretty darn close to being a quintessential American.

Barbara was a Texan, from a family whose ancestors came to this country from Germany. She went to the all-American University of Texas and also a Catholic college, St. Thomas in Houston. She became a professional ballet dancer in San Francisco and New York because of the beauty of dance, the rigor of its discipline, and because you have to be extraordinarily tough and ambitious to do it. And Barbara was extraordinarily tough and ambitious.

But she always wanted to be a lawyer and to be involved in politics. In order to afford law school, she invented a career out of whole cloth in Hollywood because that, she determined, was the fastest way to earn the money she needed. It did not matter in the slightest to Barbara that when she went to Hollywood she knew absolutely nothing about the motion picture and television industry. And, in fact, it really didn't matter because, as she later explained to the unwitting producer who gave her her first job, she was a fast-learner.

And, of course, she succeeded. She turned down the last job she was offered in Hollywood because she had finally earned enough money to go to law school, and they were offering her so much money she did not want to be so tempted to forego her dream to be a lawyer.

She went to Cardozo Law School at Yeshiva University in New York, not necessarily the obvious choice for a blond Catholic girl from Texas. She was even told that she would never fit in, and that she would be miserable. But the people who told her that really did not know Barbara. She thrived at Cardozo as she had thrived at St. Thomas and in the ballet and in Hollywood. She loved the people, the classes, the professors, and she was a huge success, popping up for one reason or another with embarrassing frequency on the cover of Jewish Weekly.

Barbara created a Federalist Society chapter at Cardozo because she believed in the Society's principles - and it only served to goad her on that almost no one at Cardozo shared her political views.
In her third year of law school, she somehow managed to finesse herself into an internship with the Office of Legal Counsel at the Department of Justice in Washington. And, as a very brassy and gusty intern, she managed to be the only employee of the government of the United States willing, feisty and fearless enough to personally serve the papers on the PLO mission to the United Nations in New York announcing that it was being expelled from this country -- because they were terrorists. How Barbara loved to tell that story to her friends at Cardozo!

She turned down jobs with the finest law firms in new York to come to Washington where, it seems, she was always destined ultimately to be. In rapid succession, she succeeded as a lawyer in private practice, as a hot and very successful federal prosecutor, as Deputy General Counsel to the House of Representatives, and as a top Congressional investigator, television personality and lobbyist.

It was typically Barbara that when Al Regnery suggested that she write a book about Hillary Rodham Clinton, she literally jumped at the chance. She told me at the time that she wasn't sure that she was a writer, but a friend of ours told her that she didn't have to be a writer to be an author. So, with her legendary energy and limitless self-confidence, she poured herself into the book, finished it in nine months and, against seemingly insurmountable odds, without any previous experience with serious writing, climbed onto the New York Times best seller list during the heaviest competitive time of the year, and stayed there for nine weeks. Ten days ago, her second book, written in about six months and finished just days before her death, opened at number two on the New York Times bestseller list, ahead of Bill O'Reilly, Jack Welch and Tiger Woods. Not bad.

Barbara was everywhere in Washington. A witness for Clarence Thomas at his confirmation, a co-founder of the Independent Women's Forum, hosting Federalist Society members from all over the country in her home, at the epi-center of the travel office and filegate investigations, and the China campaign contributions investigation, the second-most invited guest on "Larry King Live," appearing on MSNBC, FOX, "Meet the Press," "Cross-Fire," "Geraldo," "Politically Incorrect," you name it. Ready to talk about any subject, ready to face down any adversary. She always had an opinion. And she always had that smile.

I could tell you Barbara stories for hours, and I think that you would be glad to listen. But, in short, Barbara partook of everything life gave her. She saw no limits in the people around her and she accepted no limits on what she could accomplish. She could be charming, tough, indefatigable, ferocious and lovable. And all those things at once.

Barbara was Barbara because America, unlike anyplace in the world, gave her the space, freedom, oxygen, encouragement and inspiration to be whatever she wanted to be. Is there any other place on earth where someone could do all these things in forty-five years?

So, sadly, and ironically, Barbara may have been the perfect victim for these wretched, twisted, hateful people. Because she was so thoroughly and hugely an American. And such a symbol of America's values, ideals, and robust ambition. But she died as she lived. Fighting, believing in herself, and determined to succeed. And, if she was the perfect victim, she is also a perfect symbol of what we are fighting for now and for why we will prevail.

I know, and she knows, that her government and the people of America will win this war, however long it takes, whatever we have to do. We will never, ever forget or flinch. We will prevail for Barbara and all the other Americans we lost on September 11. And for the American spirit for which they stood and their lives embodied. And, most of all, we will defeat these terrorists because Barbara and those other American casualties of September 11, and our forebears, and our children, would never forgive us if we did not.

* * * * *

Beginning in November of 2001, the memorial lecture and a following reception will be held each year at the Federalist Society's National Lawyers Convention. We envision that the lecture will bring together leaders of the legal and policy worlds in a lively discussion of the ideas that Barbara held most dear. The Federalist Society welcomes contributions to a fund that will support the lecture. Contributions can be directed to the Federalist Society at the following address or you may donate on-line just by clicking the button below.

The Federalist Society
Barbara K. Olson Memorial Lecture Fund
1015 Eighteenth Street, N.W.
Suite 425
Washington, D.C. 20036