11 Dec

Obama invokes a national unity increasingly hard to find

When the United States endured a mass shooting in October, at Umpqua Community College, President Obama came to Oregon.

When we endured a mass shooting last week, he made a prime-time speech Sunday night calling for unity, and for some minimal gun control measures.

In both cases, he advanced basically the same message: Hold on, and hold on to each other. In neither case was it electrifying, but in each case, it wasn’t clear what else there was to offer.

And the two responses cast shadows on each other.

The two atrocities were different, of course. The Roseburg shooting was committed by one of our native loners, someone who cultivates his grievances in his shack or his bedroom, amassing his impossibly elaborate arsenal, with weapons beyond the imagination of the most recent major wars, until he bursts out to wreak vengeance on the anonymous world. Last week’s San Bernardino terror came from two Muslims with a hidden rage, loosing their weapons in a religious war, piling up bodies in tribute to a savagery on the other side of the world.

They were different situations, although in newspaper photos the dead eyes of the Roseburg shooter oddly reflected the dead eyes of the San Bernardino wife who incomprehensibly dropped her six-month-old daughter to be babysat by the killer’s mother before going out to destroy her life and two dozen others.

They were different paths to slaughter, although The New York Times reported Sunday that since 9/11, the death toll from jihadist attacks in the United States has been essentially the same as the toll from white supremacists. The two patterns, plus our constant rumble of school and workplace shootings, led the president to propose two small gun safety measures, although even he must have known the ideas weren’t going anywhere.

His speech came right after the Senate, on a near-party line vote, blocked a proposal to limit gun sales to people on the no-fly list, apparently on the reasoning that people who can’t be trusted with a seat in coach still have a constitutional right to an AK-47. It brought back the president’s response to the earlier shooting, when he flew across the country to try to support Roseburg, only to find people lining his route and hanging off freeway overpasses denouncing him for gun safety proposals.

It makes it hard to know just what can be said after a mass shooting – except just to denounce whoever did it, which most people can generally support.

On Obama’s declaration to take on the Islamic State – “We will destroy ISIL and any other organization that tries to harm us” – political opponents attacked it as weak and inadequate, although it wasn’t clear what they would do instead.

Nobody, it seems, really wants to send large numbers of ground troops back to the Middle East, although everyone wants to show resolve – and thinks it would make a huge difference if Obama said the words “radical Islamic terrorism.” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said that he would order the Defense Department to destroy ISIS, raising the question of why nobody else thought of that. He also promised to find out whether we could make sand glow – and if he’s talking about nuclear weapons, maybe we should have an election on that – and by Monday, Donald Trump had gotten to the basics: The United States should admit no more Muslims.

What happens to the 6 million already here – and the thousands deeply rooted in Oregon, where the Muslim Educational Trust Community Center has its grand opening Saturday – is less clear. But this might not be the ideal time to declare them all to be our enemies.

“We cannot turn against one another,” pleaded Obama Sunday night, “by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam.”

The beginning of any policy, domestic or international, should be “We cannot turn against one another.” But you can look at the reactions to other shootings, and the outbursts on the campaign trail, and wonder if Obama is trying to appeal to a national unity that’s getting very hard to find.

Americans – and France, and Western Europe, and most of the population of the Middle East – face a direct danger. But we’ve faced danger before, and in every case – Franklin D. Roosevelt after the fall of France, George W. Bush after 9/11 – presidents have appealed to our unity and shared values and warned against turning on each other, the warning Obama gave Sunday evening.

This time, the question is whether Americans are listening.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 12/9/15.

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