It was supposed to be a raucous event. Barack Obama's Wisconsin campaign kick-off at a sold-out theater in downtown Milwaukee started with a line of people wrapped around the block. Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, who endorsed Obama for President, gave the introduction. But the balloons, music, and crowd-pleasing speeches were cancelled. Instead, there was a moment of silence, then somber reflection on the shootings of 32 Virginia Tech students just hours before. Obama threw away his prepared stump speech, and instead spoke about the day's tragic events. "Please, have a seat," he told the cheering crowd.
He explained his reasons for changing the tone of the event. Then he quoted Bobby Kennedy's famous speech after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, about how, with one act of violence, "the whole nation is degraded." America, Kennedy said, seems to tolerate violence, whether it is "civilian slaughter in far-off lands," our increasingly coarse entertainment culture, or the ready access to guns.
"That was written in 1968--almost 40 years ago," Obama said of Kennedy's remarks. "We haven't made much progress."
Within hours of the shooting at Virginia Tech, Obama threw away his stump speech and talked about the tragic events.
Monday's massacre, the biggest mass shooting in American history, will prompt "all kinds of discussion," Obama said--about crime, violence, gun control, and campus security, among other topics. "But I hope there will be some discussion of violence in all its forms. . . . [In American culture] we glorify it, encourage it, ignore it . . . . It's heartbreaking. And it has to stop."
Violence, and the callousness Americans have for the suffering of victims of violence, poverty, and oppression, is ultimately "rooted in our incapacity to recognize ourselves in each other--not understanding that we're all connected fundamentally as people," Obama said. "Those who may not look like me, talk like me, worship the same God I do, are nonetheless worthy of respect and dignity. . . . [But] at some fundamental level, we're still trapped in this insane belief that we can impose our wills on each other."
Part of the reason things are still as bad as they were 40 years ago, Obama said, in terms of poverty, lack of opportunity, broken health care and education systems, and "a war that never should have been authorized and never should have been fought" (his biggest applause line) is that "we haven't been as engaged as we should be."
"We've given up. We look inward. . . . This same disengagement makes us tolerate violence." He made a pitch for overcoming cynicism and restoring " a sense that we have a mutual responsibility to care for each other."
Like Bobby Kennedy in 1968, Obama is talking to a racially divided nation about prospects for reconciliation and peace. As he delivered his remarks, he did not know the identity of the Virginia Tech shooter, whose background as a South Korean immigrant is bound to stir up roiling racist and anti-immigrant sentiment.
Obama's audience in Milwaukee, like many of his audiences around the country, was a remarkable mix of races and ages. There was a sense of optimism in the crowd that seemed to derive partly from the feeling that, as Obama put it, the diversity of his supporters "is a symbol of what I think America should be about."
Kennedy's handlers in 1968 were afraid he would be killed if he went forward with his planned speech to a mostly African-American crowd. It fell to Kennedy to give them the news of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, and the police and press traveling with him feared that a riot would erupt. Instead, he moved the crowd to tears with his call for a rejection of violence and a better, inclusive America.
By invoking Kennedy, Obama was clearly reaching for the same high ground. To the extent that he strikes a chord with his listeners, he helps foster the hope that we could, indeed, heal what's wrong with our angry, violent, and divided country.