Just moments after he raised his right hand to take the oath of office at a time of economic despair in 2009, Barack Obama spoke of the resilience of the American people. In that first inaugural address, Obama paraphrased the lyrics from a 1930s Fred Astaire musical as he declared, “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”
Thursday afternoon, at a memorial service in Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross, Obama invoked the story of 78-year-old marathoner Bill Iffrig who was knocked off his feet by the bomb blast just 15 feet from the finish line. Talking of the resilience of Boston and America in the face of harrowing violence, Obama said, “We may be momentarily knocked off our feet, but we’ll pick ourselves up. We’ll keep going. We will finish the race.”
Obama was very careful with his language, describing “this heinous act” and the perpetrators as “small, stunted individuals.” The president never mentioned “terrorism” or referred to foreign threats, but he pointedly used the verb “terrorize.” The president’s words were a way of gliding over all the public uncertainty surrounding the bombings and their cause. It was probably wiser and definitely more uplifting for the president to celebrate Boston and its gritty, yet intellectual self-image than to dwell on the fear unleashed on Patriot’s Day.
This has been a harrowing week for Obama. All the emotion that flowed from his last memorial service for the victims in Newtown led to defeat and dejection with the expected—yet still brutal—Senate rejection of expanded background checks for gun buyers Wednesday afternoon. Even the memory of 20 dead small children was not enough to turn the legislative tide. As Obama put it Wednesday, not bothering to mask his anger over vote, “This was a pretty shameful day for Washington.”
Grief counseling is not mentioned in the Constitution, nor does it ever come up in presidential debates. But part of the job of any president in this already tear-stained century is to channel our collective sadness, to speak for all Americans at a time of national tragedy.
Obama was still in the first year of his presidency when he said during a memorial service at Fort Hood after the shootings there, “We pay tribute to 13 men and women who were not able to escape the horror of war, even in the comfort of home.” In 2011, at a memorial service for the victims of the shootings in a Tucson parking lot, Obama sadly admitted, “There is nothing I can say that will fill the sudden hole torn in your hearts.”
Last year, in response to the massacre in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater, Obama said, “If there’s anything to take away from this tragedy, it’s the reminder that life is very fragile. Our time here is limited and it is precious.” And at the memorial service for the victims at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Obama said, “Here in Newtown, I come to offer the love and the prayers of a nation. I am very mindful that mere words cannot match the depths of your sorrow, nor can they heal your wounded hearts.”
Yes, there is a sameness to much of Obama’s funereal oratory. The fault lies not with the president or the White House speechwriters, but with the limits of human speech at a time of grief. These are the same limitations that Abraham Lincoln referred to in 1863 when he dedicated a national cemetery at Gettysburg near where nearly 8,000 soldiers died: “We cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”
The difference, of course, is that Lincoln was speaking on a military battlefield, while Obama as president has been primarily mourning those killed at home following everyday pursuits—watching a famous race, attending a leafy elementary school, going to the movies or meeting with their congresswoman in a supermarket parking lot. Each innocent setting makes the carnage crueler and more macabre.
The three deaths and the scores of maimed bodies at the finish line in Boston also speak to the profound uncertainty of our age. Was this a new front in the war that toppled the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001? Or was this the latest reminder (as if we needed one after Newtown and Aurora) that Americans are a violent people—and that walking among us are individuals with crazed grievances and a warped desire to inflict pain, suffering and death.
The hair-trigger mood was symbolized Wednesday by the wildly wrong rumors about an impending arrest that were legitimized by major news organizations like the Associated Press and CNN. To be charitable, it was almost as if amid our fears, the news media abandoned traditional rules of reliable sourcing in a desperate effort to add a note of the-worst-is-over calm to our continuing anguish.
Politicians and the media often give way to an irresistible impulse to automatically brand any horrific act “terrorism.” In the immediate aftermath of Monday’s bloodbath, Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, flatly said, “My understanding is that it’s a terrorist incident.” Two Maine senators, Susan Collins and Angus King—both members of the Intelligence Committee—were even more unequivocal, saying that the bombings “bear the hallmarks of a terrorist attack.”
Using the word “terrorism” before there is any certainty that the attack had any remote connection with an organized group—let alone the remnants of al-Qaida—can only fan frightening memories of 9/11 and Oklahoma City. That is why Obama’s restraint today in Boston and in his prior remarks at the White House has been admirable. The images of dead bodies and maimed limbs on Boylston Street are wrenching enough without politicians in Washington resorting to rhetorical fear-mongering.
Obama ended his 20-minute reflections with a passionate affirmation of an open society where “we come together to celebrate life, to walk our cities and to cheer for our teams.” As the nation’s first truly urban president since John Kennedy, Obama instinctively understands the vibrancy of cities like Boston. That may be why he places such a high premium on living without fear amid the hubbub of the Hub. And in the resilience of Bostonians and all Americans.