I did not see it delivered, but, having read the transcript, it seems to me that President Obama’s speech at the memorial for the victims of the Tucson shooting is one of the best he has delivered.
He celebrates the ordinary and homely virtues of those who died and those who were injured. They are quintessentially democratic virtues, available to each of us so long as we know where to look and which call to hear:
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, in the hearts of so many of our fellow citizens, all around us, just waiting to be summoned — as it was on Saturday morning. Their actions, their selflessness poses a challenge to each of us. It raises a question of what, beyond 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?
This isn’t Pericles’ Funeral oration, calling upon us to subsume ourselves in our faceless contributions to the greatness of Athenian imperialism. It’s closer in aspiration to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, but it lacks that speech’s grandeur, brevity, and theoretical depth. But, given what passes for public oratory these days, it’s quite good.
I said the virtues celebrated were democratic, but they were also, given the ages of some of the victims, “old-fashioned.” Husbands risked their lives for their wives because that’s what husbands are (or were?) supposed to do. President Obama didn’t call our attention to this, especially in its gendered aspect, but he couldn’t exactly avoid talking about it. Might it be an inconvenient truth?
I especially liked the modesty of this passage:
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 have to guard against simple explanations in the aftermath.
For the truth is none of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack. None of us can know with any certainty what might have stopped these shots from being fired, or what thoughts lurked in the inner recesses of a violent man’s mind. Yes, we have to 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 such violence in the future . . . .
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’s 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 that our hopes and dreams are bound together. (Applause.)
After all, that’s what most of us do when we lose somebody in our family — especially if the loss is unexpected. We’re shaken out of our routines. We’re 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 that they made for us? Did we tell a spouse just how desperately we loved them, not just once in a while 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. (Applause.)
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’re doing right by our children, or our community, whether our priorities are in order.
We recognize our own mortality, and we 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 — (applause)— and what small part we have played in making the lives of other people better. (Applause.)
And that process — that process of reflection, of making sure we align our values with our actions — that, I believe, is what a tragedy like this requires.
Events like these above all challenge us, he says, to think about our own finitude, to take responsibility for conducting our own lives better.
This too is a quintessentially democratic response. We personalize things and think about what they mean to us as individuals with varied roles as members of families and communities. Our imagination is properly limited by our finitude, and our response is within the scope of our capacity. To state it another way, this part of the speech is appropriately humble.
Unfortunately, the President can’t resist turning to a larger public project:
The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better. To be better in our private lives, to be better friends and neighbors and coworkers and parents. And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their death helps usher in more civility in our public discourse, 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. (Applause.)
We should be civil 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 . . . .
To be sure, there is a gesture at hesitation, consistent with his earlier modesty and humility:
They believed — they believed, and I believe that we can be better. Those who died here, those who saved life 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, that’s entirely up to us. (Applause.)
But he can’t resist the bigger game:
And 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. (Applause.)
That’s what I believe, in part because that’s what a child like Christina Taylor Green believed. (Applause.)
Imagine — imagine for a moment, 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 some day 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 and 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 to live up to her expectations. (Applause.) I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it. (Applause.) All of us — we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations. (Applause.)
It isn’t enough that we as husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, children, brothers, sisters, and friends strive to live up to the innocent and trusting expectations of our children (at least those we project onto our children), but we have to make the country live up their expectations.
We have to do it for the children.
I’ve heard that said too often in justification of yet another government program intended to improve some facet of our society. Kids are hard to resist, and no one wants to be thought of as a heartless hater of the little ones, willfully indifferent or hostile to something that ostensibly will make their lives better.
But thinking about future generations shouldn’t prevent us from thinking about our relatively modest capacities, not to mention the indebtedness we’re already bequeathing to them.
Perhaps we should think about what we can do at relatively little “cost,” painful though it may be: let’s take “personal responsibility” for our own lives and our own conduct, playing to the best of our ability those private and public roles we’re called to fulfill.
I’ll long remember that part of the President’s speech and take care that I little note the more politically ambitious overtones that worked their way in at the end. Although he didn’t start out sounding like Pericles, he approached it—a little too closely for my taste—at the end. For the children, of course.