Right Message, Wrong Moment

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Obama’s speech tonight contained some beautiful lines, the tone set by a quotation from my favorite Psalm, one of the most poetic and comforting passages in the Bible:

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.

And it included some inspiring sentiments that the country has long needed to hear from a leader, such as the assertion that, “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.” But I confess that I missed most of them while listening to the speech, only catching them later as I read through the transcript. Because throughout Obama’s live delivery, I could not get past the qualm Mike highlighted in his review–the disconnect between this stirring call to decency and civility, and the tragedy that was the reason for the memorial service.

I suspect I was not the only one who squirmed uncomfortably at the implicit message: These victims did not die in vain; they died in part so that we might have a reason to call on Republicans and Democrats to cut it out and start acting like adults.

That is not to say that polarization and the tendency to de-legitimize those who hold different beliefs aren’t worrisome aspects of our politics and society that need addressing. But in this setting, the call to civility seemed like the solution to a problem only people in Washington connected to the Tucson shooting. It was the message pundits were waiting for Obama to give tonight, and that message was eloquently crafted and delivered.

But I wouldn’t be surprised if Obama’s stirring exhortations struck the average listener as jarring. After all, those who lost their lives on Saturday were killed by a mentally ill man who should never have been able to purchase a gun. Obviously, no one wants to listen to a discussion of mental health policy and gun safety laws at a memorial service. I just wonder if most home viewers were really primed by the tragedy to answer Obama’s challenge to forge a more decent, united country.