The nation has seen President Obama rise to his duty too many times in speaking in the wake of tragedy, be it Newtown or Charleston or Baton Rouge. The president went Tuesday to Dallas, where on Thursday five police officers – charged with protecting the safety of demonstrators in a protest march – were slain by a sniper motivated, in his words, to kill white people.
Appearing with his predecessor, former President George W. Bush, Obama brought a somber tone, touching occasionally on Scripture but, in one of the most comprehensive messages of his presidency, also addressing head-on the racial divide in the United States and the frustration he feels in the country from both white Americans and those of color.
The president first recognized, individually and with meaningful anecdotes, the five slain officers. His speech, his eulogy, contained a humane and personal message to their survivors.
The president was, he said, reaching for “some meaning amidst our sorrow” as he talked of those officers who “answered the call.”
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“Our way of life,” he said, “depends on the rule of law. We don’t have soldiers in the streets or militias ... we have public servants.” He noted that the shootings of black men by white officers in Louisiana and Minnesota had “left Americans struggling.” He touched on the tensions between the races and rejected the idea that the division is hopeless because, the president said, “I know how far we’ve come ... what I’ve experienced in my own life.” He spoke of the goodness and decency in the country.
The officers, he said, showed the meaning of perseverance and character and protected others at risk to themselves.
The president might have focused exclusively in his remarks on the officers and their families, but he chose instead to address the confrontations between police and other citizens and the need for all people to recognize the humanity of the victims in the shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota. But he came back to the slain officers in Dallas, saying, “We ask the police to do too much and ask too little of ourselves.”
He noted that “we tell police, ‘you’re the social worker, you’re the parent, you’re the counselor.” He said underfunded public schools, a lack of adequate investment in mental health care and, yes, guns all contribute to crime problems.
He asked that Americans find the character in themselves to open our hearts to each other.
On Tuesday, the president’s task was to deal with the tragic irony of officers dying while protecting the rights of some who were their critics and to speak directly to both the nation and the grieving families who lost husbands and fathers and brothers on that night in Dallas. But he also was speaking, as he always does, to a country. It is a country that in November 2008 elected him as the nation’s first black president, something seen by quite a few Americans as a significant sign of improved racial harmony in a country long torn asunder in different ways by racial tensions. That hope has been dimmed by division since.
In many ways, it can seem that America, more than 150 years after the end of the Civil War, is more divided than ever.
And so on Tuesday in Dallas, families of some courageous officers and all of their fellow Americans looked for leadership from a president who has had to answer that call before. He did so again, bringing a message his country needed to hear.