Everyone either wondered what the President would say, or knew what he should say. Now we know what he did say.
It may be the finest speech he’s given as president, thus far.
Everyone either wondered what the President would say, or knew what he should say. Now we know what he did say.
It may be the finest speech he’s given as president, thus far.
He spoke not merely as the President, but as an American shaken by the events in Tucson, and inspired by what those who were wounded or killed, and those who tackled and disarmed the gunman represented about America. He spoke as a parent, heartbroken at the death of nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green. Though he didn’t mention his own daughters, as a parent I’m sure he thought them as he honored her. It’s one of the ways that being a parent can change you. The innocence, wonder and endless possibilities you see in your own children, you see in other children too. You see in them all that you treasure in your own, and want to protect.
But there was something else about the speech. The President spoke as an American, a husband, and a father. While I hesitate to say that he spoke as a progressive too, but it was in some ways a very progressive speech, with progressive values at its core.
Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.
"…Our hopes and dreams about bound up together." Not just our hopes and dreams, I might add, but our fates are bound together too. Sometimes it seems that, in the middle of this economic crisis, we are so busy throwing one another overboard that we don’t realized we’re tied to one another. If I shove you overboard, it is a vain effort to save myself. The chord that runs from you to me will pull me under too, and sooner than I think. We’re either in the same boat together or we both go under together.
As Tom Friedman wrote back in September of 2009, there is no "we" in American politics anymore.
Our leaders, even the president, can no longer utter the word "we" with a straight face. There is no more "we" in American politics at a time when "we" have these huge problems -- the deficit, the recession, health care, climate change and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- that "we" can only manage, let alone fix, if there is a collective "we" at work.
This weekend, we will celebrate the birth, life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King would have nodded and uttered a few "Amens," had he heard the President’s speech. In his own way, though he didn’t mention King, the President echoed and called on us to remember the spirit of King’s words, in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail": "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."
Part of the President’s message urged us to reclaim "we."
I believe we can be better.
At a time when some of our politicians seem content to trumpet America’s greatness -- and a significant part of the electorate demands it, and wants to hear little else -- it’s refreshing to hear the President say "I believe we can be better." It’s very progressive statement.
Any greatness we can lay claim, stems in part from a belief that we can be better. Not just that we should be better, but that we can be better. It is within us to be better than we are right now. But we have to want to be better, rather than being content to that we are good and "great" enough right now.
If we want to be better than we are right now, we’ll have to work for it. Believing that we can be better, and wanting to be better makes us responsible for working to make ourselves better -- to become more like the country we want to believe we are, or say that we are on paper.
That is where goodness is learned and greatness is earned -- in those moments when we recognize that we are neither as good or as great as we could be, when we believe we can be better, when we choose to be better, and when we work to make ourselves better.
Think about where we are now and how far from the birth of this country, when its promises were reserved for a narrow portion of its population. Yet, its principles provided the basis for ever progressive movement that had as its goal the extension of those promises to the full spectrum of the population.
And yes, they were progressive movements. By the very nature of their work, they could hardly be otherwise.
…From the abolitionists movement, to the labor movement, to the suffragettes movement, to the civil rights movement, to the feminist movement, to the LGBT movement; every progressive movement that has advocated for change "as opposed to wishing to maintain things as they are."
They were and are driven by individuals lending their strength and their hearts to bending the arc of the universe towards justice, because they are comprised of people for whom the status quo is the opposite of justice and people for whom injustice -- even though visited upon others, and even though it afforded them some privileges -- is intolerable.
What else but believing we could be better could have brought to a moment when someone like Barack Obama could be the president? Or when a woman could hold elected office, or be Speaker of the House, let alone be a serious candidate for our highest office?
We were once a country where African Americans, whether free or slave, were denied the rights of citizenship, segregated, lynched, etc. We were once a country where women could not own property or vote. We were once a country where workers -- including child laborers had not rights or protections in the workplace. We are a different country today because so many before us did what the President asked to do in his speech: "expand our moral imaginations," envision "a more perfect union" and work towards it together. From this, we derive strength and endurance.
We just recently witnessed the spectacle of the constitution being read on the floor of the House (albeit to an nearly empty "House"), and the strange decision by the House GOP to read the constitution "as amended," effectively glossing over some ugly realities about our history. But to gloss over those ugly realities is to sell ourselves short, because we also gloss that which we have overcome.
By contrast, President Obama calls upon us not to turn away from the tragedy in Tucson, and not to turn away from each other.
Obama: "How Can We Honor the Fallen?" (Full Text of President’s Remarks at Memorial for Victims of Shooting)
Editor’s note: Below are President Obama’s remarks honoring the victims of Saturday’s mass shooting, delivered at a Memorial ceremony at the University of Arizona in Tucson. In the speech, Obama also gave the news that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had opened her eyes for the first time today.
To the families of those we've lost; to all who called them friends; to the students of this university, the public servants gathered tonight, and the people of Tucson and Arizona: I have come here tonight as an American who, like all Americans, kneels to pray with you today, and will stand by you tomorrow.
There is nothing I can say that will fill the sudden hole torn in your hearts. But know this: the hopes of a nation are here tonight. We mourn with you for the fallen. We join you in your grief. And we add our faith to yours that Representative Gabrielle Giffords and the other living victims of this tragedy pull through.
As Scripture tells us:
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.
God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day.
On Saturday morning, Gabby, her staff, and many of her constituents gathered outside a supermarket to exercise their right to peaceful assembly and free speech. They were fulfilling a central tenet of the democracy envisioned by our founders - representatives of the people answering to their constituents, so as to carry their concerns to our nation's capital. Gabby called it "Congress on Your Corner" - just an updated version of government of and by and for the people.
That is the quintessentially American scene that was shattered by a gunman's bullets. And the six people who lost their lives on Saturday - they too represented what is best in America.
Judge John Roll served our legal system for nearly 40 years. A graduate of this university and its law school, Judge Roll was recommended for the federal bench by John McCain twenty years ago, appointed by President George H.W. Bush, and rose to become Arizona's chief federal judge. His colleagues described him as the hardest-working judge within the Ninth Circuit. He was on his way back from attending Mass, as he did every day, when he decided to stop by and say hi to his Representative. John is survived by his loving wife, Maureen, his three sons, and his five grandchildren.
George and Dorothy Morris - "Dot" to her friends - were high school sweethearts who got married and had two daughters. They did everything together, traveling the open road in their RV, enjoying what their friends called a 50-year honeymoon. Saturday morning, they went by the Safeway to hear what their Congresswoman had to say. When gunfire rang out, George, a former Marine, instinctively tried to shield his wife. Both were shot. Dot passed away.
A New Jersey native, Phyllis Schneck retired to Tucson to beat the snow. But in the summer, she would return East, where her world revolved around her 3 children, 7 grandchildren, and 2 year-old great-granddaughter. A gifted quilter, she'd often work under her favorite tree, or sometimes sew aprons with the logos of the Jets and the Giants to give out at the church where she volunteered. A Republican, she took a liking to Gabby, and wanted to get to know her better.
Dorwan and Mavy Stoddard grew up in Tucson together - about seventy years ago. They moved apart and started their own respective families, but after both were widowed they found their way back here, to, as one of Mavy's daughters put it, "be boyfriend and girlfriend again." When they weren't out on the road in their motor home, you could find them just up the road, helping folks in need at the Mountain Avenue Church of Christ. A retired construction worker, Dorwan spent his spare time fixing up the church along with their dog, Tux. His final act of selflessness was to dive on top of his wife, sacrificing his life for hers.
Everything Gabe Zimmerman did, he did with passion - but his true passion was people. As Gabby's outreach director, he made the cares of thousands of her constituents his own, seeing to it that seniors got the Medicare benefits they had earned, that veterans got the medals and care they deserved, that government was working for ordinary folks. He died doing what he loved - talking with people and seeing how he could help. Gabe is survived by his parents, Ross and Emily, his brother, Ben, and his fiancée, Kelly, who he planned to marry next year.
And then there is nine year-old Christina Taylor Green. Christina was an A student, a dancer, a gymnast, and a swimmer. She often proclaimed that she wanted to be the first woman to play in the major leagues, and as the only girl on her Little League team, no one put it past her. She showed an appreciation for life uncommon for a girl her age, and would remind her mother, "We are so blessed. We have the best life." And she'd pay those blessings back by participating in a charity that helped children who were less fortunate.
Our hearts are broken by their sudden passing. Our hearts are broken - and yet, our hearts also have reason for fullness.
Our hearts are full of hope and thanks for the 13 Americans who survived the shooting, including the congresswoman many of them went to see on Saturday. I have just come from the University Medical Center, just a mile from here, where our friend Gabby courageously fights to recover even as we speak. And I can tell you this - she knows we're here and she knows we love her and she knows that we will be rooting for her throughout what will be a difficult journey.
And our hearts are full of gratitude for those who saved others. We are grateful for Daniel Hernandez, a volunteer in Gabby's office who ran through the chaos to minister to his boss, tending to her wounds to keep her alive. We are grateful for the men who tackled the gunman as he stopped to reload. We are grateful for a petite 61 year-old, Patricia Maisch, who wrestled away the killer's ammunition, undoubtedly saving some lives. And we are grateful for the doctors and nurses and emergency medics who worked wonders to heal those who'd been hurt.
These men and women remind us that heroism is found not only on the fields of battle. They remind us that heroism does not require special training or physical strength. Heroism is here, all around us, in the hearts of so many of our fellow citizens, just waiting to be summoned - as it was on Saturday morning.
Their actions, their selflessness, also pose a challenge to each of us. It raises the question of what, beyond the prayers and expressions of concern, is required of us going forward. How can we honor the fallen? How can we be true to their memory?
You see, when a tragedy like this strikes, it is part of our nature to demand explanations - to try to impose some order on the chaos, and make sense out of that which seems senseless. Already we've seen a national conversation commence, not only about the motivations behind these killings, but about everything from the merits of gun safety laws to the adequacy of our mental health systems. Much of this process, of debating what might be done to prevent such tragedies in the future, is an essential ingredient in our exercise of self-government.
But at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized - at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do - it's important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.
Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding. In the words of Job, "when I looked for light, then came darkness." Bad things happen, and we must guard against simple explanations in the aftermath.
For the truth is that none of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack. None of us can know with any certainty what might have stopped those shots from being fired, or what thoughts lurked in the inner recesses of a violent man's mind.
So yes, we must examine all the facts behind this tragedy. We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence. We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of violence in the future.
But what we can't do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another. As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.
After all, that's what most of us do when we lose someone in our family - especially if the loss is unexpected. We're shaken from our routines, and forced to look inward. We reflect on the past. Did we spend enough time with an aging parent, we wonder. Did we express our gratitude for all the sacrifices they made for us? Did we tell a spouse just how desperately we loved them, not just once in awhile but every single day?
So sudden loss causes us to look backward - but it also forces us to look forward, to reflect on the present and the future, on the manner in which we live our lives and nurture our relationships with those who are still with us. We may ask ourselves if we've shown enough kindness and generosity and compassion to the people in our lives. Perhaps we question whether we are doing right by our children, or our community, and whether our priorities are in order. We recognize our own mortality, and are reminded that in the fleeting time we have on this earth, what matters is not wealth, or status, or power, or fame - but rather, how well we have loved, and what small part we have played in bettering the lives of others.
That process of reflection, of making sure we align our values with our actions - that, I believe, is what a tragedy like this requires. For those who were harmed, those who were killed - they are part of our family, an American family 300 million strong. We may not have known them personally, but we surely see ourselves in them. In George and Dot, in Dorwan and Mavy, we sense the abiding love we have for our own husbands, our own wives, our own life partners. Phyllis - she's our mom or grandma; Gabe our brother or son. In Judge Roll, we recognize not only a man who prized his family and doing his job well, but also a man who embodied America's fidelity to the law. In Gabby, we see a reflection of our public spiritedness, that desire to participate in that sometimes frustrating, sometimes contentious, but always necessary and never-ending process to form a more perfect union.
And in Christina...in Christina we see all of our children. So curious, so trusting, so energetic and full of magic.
So deserving of our love.
And so deserving of our good example. If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let's make sure it's worthy of those we have lost. 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.
The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better in our private lives - to be better friends and neighbors, co-workers and parents. And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let's remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy, but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud. It should be because we want to live up to the example of public servants like John Roll and Gabby Giffords, who knew first and foremost that we are all Americans, and that we can question each other's ideas without questioning each other's love of country, and that our task, working together, is to constantly widen the circle of our concern so that we bequeath the American dream to future generations.
I believe we can be better. Those who died here, those who saved lives here - they help me believe. We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us. I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.
That's what I believe, in part because that's what a child like Christina Taylor Green believed. Imagine: here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that someday she too might play a part in shaping her nation's future. She had been elected to her student council; she saw public service as something exciting, something hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model. She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted.
I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us - we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children's expectations.
Christina was given to us on September 11th, 2001, one of 50 babies born that day to be pictured in a book called "Faces of Hope." On either side of her photo in that book were simple wishes for a child's life. "I hope you help those in need," read one. "I hope you know all of the words to the National Anthem and sing it with your hand over your heart. I hope you jump in rain puddles."
If there are rain puddles in heaven, Christina is jumping in them today. And here on Earth, we place our hands over our hearts, and commit ourselves as Americans to forging a country that is forever worthy of her gentle, happy spirit.
May God bless and keep those we've lost in restful and eternal peace. May He love and watch over the survivors.