US Attorney General Merrick Garland called on Harvard graduates from the classes of 2020 and 2021 Sunday to help protect democracy amid the growing threat of violence and efforts to restrict voting rights across the United States.
In an at-times emotional call to action, Garland said the graduates — who faced the threat of the pandemic during their college years — must take on the mantle of overcoming the polarization that is tearing the nation apart.
“We need you. The responsibility to preserve democracy and to maintain faith in its legitimacy lies with all of us,” Garland said during their in-person commencement ceremonies Sunday, after virtual events were held for two years due to the pandemic.
Garland’s remarks came after recent deadly mass shootings at a Buffalo supermarket, a Laguna Woods, Calif., church, and an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.
Referencing the Uvalde shooting, which killed 19 y students and two teachers Tuesday, Garland said “we are also holding onto an enormous amount of grief... our hearts are broken.”
Those shootings, he said, “underscore how urgent the call to public service for your generation truly is.”
During the ceremony, several demonstrators outside Harvard’s Smith Campus Center demanded Garland release WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. The United States is seeking Assange’s extradition from the United Kingdom for his alleged role in helping to steal classified US diplomatic materials and military files.
Garland, who earned his undergraduate and law degrees at Harvard in the 1970s, said he had made a promise while a student at the university to devote part of his life to public service.
And he feels he owes a debt to this country, he said.
Members of his family fled religious persecution in Europe and took refuge in the United States before World War I, Garland said, which allowed them to survive the Holocaust. Garland has previously said his grandparents fled antisemitism in Europe.
Garland said his grandmother was one of five children born in what is now Belarus; she and three of her siblings attempted to enter the United States. Not all of them made it.
“The fourth was turned back at Ellis Island. And the fifth did not try,” Garland said, pausing for a moment before continuing.
The two who stayed behind died in the Holocaust, he said.
“So for me, public service is a way to repay the debt my family owes to this country for our very lives,” Garland said.
Garland said democracy is threatened in this country as well as overseas, including in Russia’s months-long unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. In the United States, democracy is under attack by efforts to undermine voting rights and the use of violence to overturn the law, including the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol.
He said violence and threats of violence are “becoming normalized and routine. This is deeply dangerous for our democracy.”
That violence includes acts that target people because of “who they are,” Garland said. He pointed to the Buffalo shooting, where a white man is accused of killing 10 people, acting out of racially motivated extremism.
Threats and violence have also targeted people who interact with the public, he said.
“These are our fellow citizens who administer our elections, ensure our safe travel, treat the sick, teach the children, report the news, represent their constituents, ensure the rule of law, and keep our communities safe,” Garland said.
Graduates who enter public service, he said, can help “build and rebuild” the institutions upon which a functioning democracy depends.
People must also be willing to tell the truth and ensure that an event like Jan. 6 is not downplayed or understated, he said.
“We are all in this together,” he said. “We must protect each other.”
US Senator Elizabeth Warren appeared later Sunday morning at Harvard Law School’s 2020 and 2021 commencement and pointed out that other countries have been able to reduce gun violence.
“We are so torn apart politically that we stay with the status quo that is literally killing people we love,” Warren said.
John Hilliard can be reached at email@example.com.