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Comey: If We Don't Stop Hate Crime, 'It Will Come for All of Us'

WASHINGTON -- FBI Director James Comey told the Anti-Defamation League today that the Bureau is determined "not to let evil hold the field" as he fears people "stewing" with hate turning their prejudices into hate crimes.

He cited recent incidents including "the vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, the racially motivated shooting of two Indian immigrants... swastikas on synagogues and subway signs, a transgender woman attacked in her own home, a noose sent to an African-American attorney... a defaced sign on a Spanish-language church."

Comey told the ADL's National Leadership Summit that "as much as we love" the activist group, "we have been spending way too much time together lately -- I think we'd all be happier if we had meetings that were fewer and far between, if we had no need to investigate hate crime, no need to share information about pending terrorist threats, no need to educate kids or community leaders or cops about bigotry and prejudice."

"In your line of work, and in ours, we see a lot of people filled with hate. Some of those people will sit quietly, simmering and stewing in their own bitterness. Some will shout about it to anyone who will listen, ever hopeful that maybe their hate will attract hate," he said. "And while we can try and illuminate and educate those people who are sitting there simmering, some will always be trapped in that starless midnight that Martin Luther King wrote about so many years ago."

Comey mused about whether people have been "emboldened by divisive rhetoric" or if there are "simply more opportunities to instill fear and intimidation today than ever before."

"Do the ways in which we now communicate, often anonymously and from a great distance, offer license to those who want to hate, who want to discriminate, who want to poison?"

The FBI director recently joined Twitter "to listen, to read, especially, what's being said about the FBI and its mission," and said the social media site sometimes feels like "every dive bar in America, where I can hear everybody screaming at the television set."

"But it is free speech. You don't have to like it, you don't have to agree with it, but we will protect it, because it is the bedrock of this great country," he added.

What's worrisome, he noted, "are the ones who stop talking about who they hate and what they hate so much, and start acting on that hate."

"You know all too well that, in a heartbeat, words can turn to violence, because hate doesn't remain static too often. An opinion, a dislike, a prejudice sometimes foments, sometimes it festers and it can grow into something far more dangerous," Comey said. "Sometimes, too often, hate becomes hate crime. So we have to do everything in our power to stop those people who move from stewing to acting, who move from just hating to hurting, wherever they are, whoever they are, no matter whether they occupy positions of authority or they're private citizens."

Hate crime, the director emphasized, "is different from other crime."

"It strikes at the heart of one's identity, it strikes at our sense of self. It strikes at our sense of belonging. And the end result is loss. Loss of trust, loss of dignity, and, too often, loss of life," he said. "Hate crime hurts more than just the victim, it harms the entire community, because an attack on one of us because of who we are or what we believe or what we look like is an attack on all of us. And we each must accept responsibility to speak up and to stop it, because eventually, if we don't, it will come for all of us."

Comey, whose department requires bureau trainees to visit the Holocaust Museum, said "the Holocaust is the most significant event in human history" as it is "a display of our true capacity for evil and moral surrender."

"It is our obligation not to let evil hold the field," he said, adding the FBI wants all agents and analysts "to learn about abuse of power on a breathtaking scale... to see that, although the slaughter of the holocaust was lead by sick and evil people, those sick and evil leaders were joined by and followed by people who loved their families, who took soup to sick neighbors, who went to church, who gave to charity."

"...Good people helped murder millions. And that's the most frightening lesson of all -- that our very humanity is capable of convincing itself that we have to do this, it's the right thing to do. And that should frighten all of us."

New members of the FBI are also required to study the FBI's interactions with Martin Luther King, Jr., and visit the King memorial. Comey keeps under the glass on his desk the October 1963 memo from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy asking for permission to wiretap MLK "utterly without factual content."

"I keep that piece of paper in that spot to remind me of we in the FBI are responsible for, and what we as humans are capable of, and why it is vital that power be overseen and constrained, including my power and that of the FBI," he said.

"...Learning the law and how to shoot and how to conduct an arrest in an appropriate way is really important stuff, and hard. But it's much harder and more important, in our view, to understand and internalize the long-term ramifications of prejudice and bigotry, the value of oversight. It's much harder to fight against unconscious bias and the sting of subtle racism. These are more than just lessons to be learned. We believe they are living principles that have to be ingrained into everything that we do, become part of who we are."

Comey stressed that "as law enforcement officers, we especially need a full understanding of the history and journey of black America -- the hopes, the dreams, the disappointments and the pain."

"We need to know the history of law enforcement's interaction with black America, because black people cannot forget it. We need to know what's happening in all our communities, not what we think is happening, or even what the people we're serving think is happening, but what is really happening," he said, adding that only data "gives us a full picture of what's happening."

"We at the FBI have been pressing for more data in this country for the last two years, and we're going to keep pressing for it. Data related to violent crime and homicides, data related to officer-involved shootings, data related to altercations with citizens and attacks against law enforcement officers, and yes, data related to hate crime," which some jurisdictions do not report, Comey noted. "Some say there were no hate crimes in their jurisdiction, which would be awesome if it were true."

"We must continue to impress upon our state and local counterparts how important it is that we track and report hate crime data. It's not something we can ignore, even though it's painful. It's not something we can sweep under the rug, even though it's painful."