I covered my 50th Mansfield University commencement recently. Over the years the speakers have melted into a quiet mumble of forgotten words.
But Saturday’s speaker, Ali Soufan, hit home in a personal way. The former FBI Agent was lead investigator in the USS Cole bombing, He was a key investigator after the 9/11 attacks, an Al-Qaeda expert and one of the FBI’s lead counter terrorism investigators.
He interrogated suspected terrorists, and partly because he speaks Arabic, partly because he took the time to understand religious beliefs, and partly because he treated them as humans, they often talked.
The FBI called Soufan a “national treasure.” Others called him an “American hero.”
He left the FBI n 2005 and created his own international security firm. Later, when various officials defended “enhanced interrogation” as a means to obtaining information, Soufan came forward and denounced torture. He testified at the 2009 Senate Judicial Hearings on torture, providing facts that others sought to ignore. He wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times and has been quoted by Time and Newsweek.
He came up against anyone who defended torture, including the Vice President of the United States.
Soufan doesn’t do it for the publicity, though he was profiled in a long piece in The New Yorker.
He does it for the sake of truth, for what he believes in.
“My service to our country has put me in difficult situations,” Soufan told the MU audience. “I’ve seen man at his worst, and man at his best. I can tell you that in the darkest of moments, there are those who provide a light. Never forget that a small beam of light is enough to overpower a whole room of darkness. Never underestimate the impact that you alone, sticking to your principles, can have.”
Inspirational words are expected at commencements, but Soufan has earned the right to share them. He’s put himself in danger more than once because of his principles.
And it struck me like never before that, yes, each student sitting here, waiting to cross the stage, pick up his or her diploma and enter the world, can make a difference.
Why did this speaker’s words ring so true?
Because in 1994 Ali Soufan sat in this same spot, crossed the stage, accepted his diploma, and entered the world.