During a lengthy speech Wednesday night at the Tucson memorial service for the Arizona shooting victims, President Barack Obama spoke of polarizing discourse and the eagerness to point fingers and lay blame.
As expected, he touched at some length on what the lessons of that shooting were, mostly framing it in general terms about being better people, but also directly about the need for a more civil tone in public debate.
The President was clearly using the speech as a moment to call for a more civil society.
“If, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse,” he said, “let us remember it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy–it did not. But rather, because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make them proud.”
Britt Hume on Fox said he had been led to believe by the White House that the President was not going to get into the violent rhetoric issue. However, the President certainly alluded to it in a speech that lasted over half an hour, including frequent long pauses for applause and cheers from a crowd that included many students, and that at the time gave the service more the feel of a pep rally.
Several commentators suggested that was because Tucson needed a reason to cheer after the horrific events of the past few days.
The President warned against laying blame. He said that when such a tragedy strikes, it is human nature to demand explanations and impose some order on chaos. But he also noted that “much” of the process of debating how to prevent future tragedies “is an essential ingredient in our exercise of self-government.
“At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized,” he continued, “at a time when we are far too eager to lay blame for all the ails of the world at the feet of those who happen to think differently than we do, it is important for us to pause for a moment to make sure that we are talking to each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.”
But that statement served two purposes. On one level it could be read as a caution to those who have been pointing fingers at violent metaphors from the right, but it could also be read as a criticism of those metaphors and that speech.
“Bad things happen,” he said, “and we must guard against simple explanations.” But while he said that nobody could know, “with any certainty” (important qualification there) “what might have stopped these shots from being fired,” he also added that all the facts behind the tragedy needed to be examined.
“We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence,” he said, suggesting action that could very well include examining the impact of rhetoric on the “unhinged,” as Bill Clinton has put it.
“We can and should be willing to challenge old assumptions to lessen the prospects of such violence now and in the future,” the President said. “What we cannot do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other. That we cannot do.”
The speech carried, if not mixed messages, a carefully crafted dual message that focused the present on coming together, and the future on understanding what it was that drove us apart.
“If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost,” he said. “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.”
Andrea Domanick contributed to this blog.