How Obama took meaning out of senselessness and tragedy
We could do with just a snippet of the powerful leadership and vision displayed in Tucson
IT IS the gift of a skilled communicator to bring events and people to life, to make us care for people we have never met. There has been an outpouring of sympathy for Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, victim of an attempted assassination attempt by a delusional and unstable young man.
At the memorial service in Tucson, President Barack Obama made us see the six other victims of the shootings in Tucson, Arizona, as husbands, wives, partners, grandparents and children. He ensured that they moved from anonymous victims to people we could recognise and care about.
Judge John Roll already had a public profile, but the speech showed us a daily massgoer, a Republican who was gracious enough, as Congresswoman Giffords is herself, to transcend the bitter political divide that characterises American politics. He dropped by just to say “hi” to his representative. He never came home.
We met Dot Morris, 50 years married, whose husband tried to shield her and failed. Dorwan Stoddard, another selfless husband, who died covering his wife’s body. We met Phyllis Schneck, the quilting grandma. Thirty-year-old Gabe Zimmerman – Ms Gifford’s outreach director – who would have been married next year. And Christina Taylor Green. A nine-year-old who was the only girl in her Little League team. A child born on September 11th, 2001 and featured in a book called Faces of Hopeas a result. Her bright spirit shone through his words.
He named the heroes, among them Daniel Hernandez, a volunteer in Gifford’s campaign who ran towards the congresswoman and stanched her wounds, and Phyllis Maisch, the 61-year-old woman who wrestled the gun magazine from the gunman’s hands.
At a moment of national tragedy and soul-searching, he functioned not as commander-in-chief, but as Washington Postcolumnist EJ Dionne described it, as pastor-in-chief. His speech was full of Biblical references, and the rhetorical devices of the best of American preachers.
But for people of faith or none, he acted as pastor in the original sense of that Latin word – a shepherd. With immense dignity, he refused to descend to the level of bitter rhetoric that had marred the aftermath of the tragedy.
The immediate response to the tragedy had been to blame the Tea Party. In a widely circulated tweet, Markos Moulitsas, founder of the popular Daily Kos blog, declared, “Mission accomplished, Sarah Palin”. He linked to the infamous Palin-produced map which has 20 Democrat representatives targeted in crosshairs.
It took other bloggers very little time to find that Moulitsas had also “put a bullseye” (his words) on Giffords and other Democrats in 2008, for being too centrist. Palin did nothing to help herself with her eight-minute video set in a pseudo-presidential setting, which frankly, was more about her outrage at being condemned than about anyone else. She even managed to refer to “blood libel”.
Initially, I liked Sarah Palin. For about four days. She seemed to be an articulate, down-to-earth woman, who had the courage to carry her Down syndrome baby to term. I even enjoyed the way she made doctrinaire feminists choke at the prospect of a woman as vice-president.
But the gloss wore off very fast. Her pro-life stance did not extend to capital punishment or war. She increasingly became a loose cannon, if you will pardon the expression. Her bizarre reality television show has her taking daughter Bristol clay pigeon shooting, to reintroduce her to the “feel of a trigger”.
Bristol is terrified of the recoil of the shotgun, and can’t shoot for peanuts. Palin takes the gun from her, and says: “Don’t retreat. Reload.”
In that regard, Palin represents the worst of American obsession with gun rights. In the wake of the shooting, almost no one is suggesting gun control. In fact, there are people in public life suggesting less gun control, because armed citizens will be able to bring down assassins like Jared Loughner faster.
There are even serious proposals in Arizona to allow teachers and students carry concealed weapons in school to prevent school massacres.
But Palin is right about one thing. The Tea Party has no monopoly on vicious rhetoric. Free speech has become licence. Many of those decrying the rhetoric that may have been one factor in leading this unstable young man to kill, crossed the line in terms of vitriol themselves.
I liked Obama when he first appeared. I still do. I wince at his pro-choice views, wondering how he cannot make the connection between his obvious commitment to protect life by providing healthcare, with the need to protect life at all stages.
But his speech at the Tucson memorial service was a masterpiece, from the moment when he revealed Ms Giffords had opened her eyes, to the vivid painting of the kind of world that Americans should build in honour of the fallen victims.
Obama brought meaning out of senselessness and tragedy. He spoke in terms of the moral imperative to care for each other, even in the cut and thrust of politics. In short, he gave people hope. We could do with even a fraction of that vision and leadership in our political discussions. We have experienced a bereavement of sorts, and we desperately need leaders who can give us hope. For a brief moment in Tucson, at a time of national soul-searching, Obama showed what is possible.