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The President's Speech as Consolation: Is That What is Needed?

Debra Cooper

The president along with many others,  like Daniel Hernandez, gave a beautiful, graceful speech last night.  It was a eulogy for those who died like the lovely 9 year old girl, Christina Taylor Green, we all would have wanted as our own. He eloquently evoked the child who skipped in puddles and yearned to be someone to make the world a better place like the woman she admired and came to see, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, whom we all hope is  valiantly beginning a recovery.  

Make the world a better place.  That is a morally essential goal.  It is also the highest calling of politics and good politicians. So what is needed to make the world a better place? How does this speech fit into that model of the world.

One of the goals of a memorial service is to console and inspire the living by remembering the best about dead. The president achieved that in a most lovely way.  He spoke lovely words about  Dorothy Morris, Judge Roll, Phyliss Schenk, Dorwan Stoddard and Giffords staffer, Gabriel Zimmerman.  He justly praised the bravery of those who saved others like Hernandez and Maisch. Saving others when placing oneself in danger as  Dorwan Stoddard did in throwing himself on top of his wife, Mary, is personally brave. However it is also a morally necessary part of leadership.  Think of all those generals who put themselves literally in the front of the army or Robert Kennedy the night of Martin Luther King's assassination.

However as Rachel Maddow asked last night, should not consolation lead to healing? I think the speech did not begin to do that. Some define healing as just feeling better.  But can that be accomplished by just ignoring the actions that lead to 6 dead and 13 wounded. These deaths did not come about in the natural course of life nor were they accidents. These deaths are wrongful deaths which were wrongfully caused.  Did the speech begin to address or redress the reasons for these murders? No.

15 years ago another speech was given in circumstances of wrongful deaths in a time of vituperative rhetoric. That was Oklahoma.  Bill Clinton gave a beautiful, strong speech. He did everything that this president did tonight.  He eulogized the dead, he consoled the living and he began a healing process for the immediate living as well as the American people.  He did not however ignore the reasons underlying the causes of so much death.  

While he wove those words into his speech elegaically, he did not shy from the stronger, clearer words to engage in what we Jews call, Tikkun Olum, to heal and repair the world.

To all my fellow Americans beyond this hall, I say, one thing we owe those who have sacrificed is the duty to purge ourselves of the dark forces which gave rise to this evil. They are forces that threaten our common peace, our freedom, our way of life.

Let us teach our children that the God of comfort is also the God of righteousness. Those who trouble their own house will inherit the wind. Justice will prevail.

Let us let our own children know that we will stand against the forces of fear. When there is talk of hatred, let us stand up and talk against it. When there is talk of violence, let us stand up and talk against it. In the face of death, let us honor life. As St. Paul admonished us, let us not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Bill Clinton directly went to the issue of talk of hatred. He said let us stand up and talk against it.  He imposed a moral imperative on all of us.  Implicit and by definition in President Clinton's speech was that when we speak against talk of hatred and talk of violence that we must first identify those who talk hate and talk violence.  Bill Clinton said to stop hate we have to know where it comes from.  Presdent Obama thinks that hate can be deflected by either ignoring it or giving the haters the other cheek.  Indeed President Obama explicitly said that assigning blame was harmful rather than productive.

Harmful, because it doesn't let us put it aside.  But we should not put aside talking about what leads people like Loughner to kill a Democratic Congressman or a Scott Roeder to also shoot point blank in the head, a Dr. George Tiller.  President Obama is not just one man speaking at a memorial service. He is the leader of the American people.  He should not shy away from leading.  And doing that does mean identifying.  It does mean pointing.  "When there is talk of hatred, let us stand up and talk against it. When there is talk of violence, let us stand up and talk against it."

Bill Clinton did both, he did that and more.  He eulogized people, he consoled the survivors, he called us all to a higher calling.  But he did what Obama refuses to do, he made a moral point.  While the words I bolded are political, what he is calling us to is very much a moral imperative.  To talk against those who talk hate and those who talk violence is a moral imperative.  It is what I wrote it is the highest calling of politics as well. It is what leaders should do.  In her quiet way, that is what Cong Giffords did when he too pointed out that such words have consequences.  Her husband, Mark Kelly, knew that too.

What President Obama said here absolves us all - of responsibility.   It absolves any of us from the imperative of doing better.  

On Yom Kippur Jews ask God to forgive their sins - the sins of commission and the sins of omission.  But there is this famous phrase "The sins you have committed against God, God may forgive you of.  But the sins you have committed against man you must ask each person's forgiveness." Of course to ask forgiveness one must  identify and accept the sins you have committed.  Barack Obama has absolved us all of the sins committed against man and said that there is no need to acknowledge that they were even done.

There has been some conversations on the web about different kinds of parenting.  Barack Obama is the epitome of the overly permissive parent.  In his personal family life it probably works very well.  His kids are so inherently good that a frown is sufficient motivation to be good.  And besides I am pretty sure the demander and expecter is Michelle Obama.

The most he does say is actually defensive... "No one can say that because we disagree with someone's views that they don't love their country."  He is defending liberals here from right wing attacks.  Nice but he isn't demanding that right wingers stop the talk of hate, because he refuses to publicly acknowledge that they commit hate.  

In this era of political and economic crisis, the desire to be above the fray, as is his usual political stance, may allow us all for the moment to feel good.  It may even contribute to his reelection.  The braver thing, the harder thing though is to throw oneself in the way.  The brave and necessary thing for a leader is do more than assauge our feelings.  He must " stand up and talk against hate. Stand up and talk against violence."

You can not stop the ongoing and increasing level of violent rhetoric if you refuse to admit it exists.  You can not stop it and its terrible consequences if you refuse to do as Moses and the prophets of old did.  Which is to take one's outstretched arm and pointed finger and say, "You.  Stop the warlike words which can only lead to the ruin of your homes and lays waste to your country"

Biblically speaking the whirlwind will be upon us if we refuse to look.  The prophet Amos said "Hate the evil, and love the good, and establish judgment in the gate."  An intrinsic part of hating evil and loving good is making a judgment between them so action against evil and for good can be obtained.

Every time he has the opportunity to take the higher moral ground in terms of the right he won't go there. He persists thinking that all that is needed is to invoke coming together.  And while it's comfortable to not lay blame, the ruin it wreaks can not be stopped if he refuses to identify the wrongs that have been committed.  Barack Obama keeps forgiving.

Sometimes forgiveness is moral failure.

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Debra Cooper wrote this piece for Open Left

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