Jewish World Review Jan. 14, 2011 9 Shevat, 5771
Obama Challenges America
By Roger Simon
The tragedy of which he spoke was the shooting of 20 people Saturday in Tucson, Ariz., by a lone gunman. Six were killed and 14 wounded, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Obama spoke at a memorial service at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where the largely student crowd whistled and applauded almost without stop, giving the event the atmosphere of a pep rally.
Yet Obama remained somber and used the speech not just for oratory but to assign the nation a difficult task.
"Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together," the president said.
Unfortunately, this seems one of the least likely results of the aftermath of the shooting. The divides in America's body politic seemed to deepen rather than heal in the days following the tragedy.
Sarah Palin, perhaps in an attempt to upstage the president — a fool's game — released Wednesday morning her own message to America. It was slick and carefully delivered, but the video sent the subliminal message that she was "in the bunker," hidden away from people, protected from the passions that are sweeping the nation.
And, assuming her true motivation was to tone down the volume, Palin made things worse, saying that journalists were creating a "blood libel" — a historic term accusing Jews of using the blood of murdered Christian babies in rituals.
Palin used the term as a warning to the media, saying that "within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn."
Obama took a gentler tack. "I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness," he said, "and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us."
What we can do concretely as a nation, however, was not entirely clear from Obama's speech. Those who expected the championing of new gun control or mental health care legislation, for example, were disappointed.
In fact, Obama made clear he believed the nation was not ready for such a conversation.
"Much of this process of debating what might be done to prevent such tragedies in the future is an essential ingredient in our exercise of self-government," he said. "But at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized — at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do — it's important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds."
Which is a very frightening, though probably correct, analysis. Consider: The president of the United States believes that Americans are so unable even to talk to one another in a way that heals rather than wounds that we cannot yet address the critical issues of the day.
Obama did say that if "this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let's make sure it's worthy of those we have lost. Let's make sure it's not on the usual plane of politics and point scoring and pettiness that drifts away with the next news cycle."
Most of Obama's speech was on this plane, which made it even more dramatic when he spoke in hard, concrete terms. "We are grateful for the men who tackled the gunman as he stopped to reload," Obama said. "We are grateful for a petite 61-year-old, Patricia Maisch, who wrestled away the killer's ammunition, undoubtedly saving some lives."
The alleged killer used an ammunition clip that held 33 rounds. Does the president favor a law banning such clips? He did not say, perhaps saving it for his State of the Union Address on Jan. 25, where it would be more appropriate.
Palin used her address to deny what many consider obvious: that our political rhetoric has become more heated. "But when was it less heated?" she asked. "Back in those 'calm days' when political figures literally settled their differences with dueling pistols?"
Dueling was not that common, however, and many duels were ended without firing a shot. More importantly, however, dueling was carried out with single-shot, muzzle-loading pistols, not modern semiautomatic weapons that can mow down more than two dozen people without reloading.
Terrible acts of gun violence occur nearly every day in this country. Why is this act being treated differently? Because a member of Congress is among the wounded and because our political fabric seems strained to the breaking point.
This requires the words of a president to begin the healing, and President Obama delivered those words Wednesday.
Now we will have to wait and see whether he follows up the words with actions.
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© 2009, Creators Syndicate