While the nation mourned the horrific murders at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, Barack Obama arrived to deliver a message of political action. What kind of action? Despite some of the initial reactions to Obama’s speech at the prayer vigil last night, a read of the transcript shows that the speech was as vague on solutions as most of us have felt since the shootings on Friday. Certainly, one could have some suspicions about the direction that Obama and his administration would like to travel for solutions, but other than promise to study the situation, Obama offered no easy proposals to solve the problems of brokenness, however one defines it:
Here is the most relevant part of the speech:
We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change. We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law — no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world, or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society.
But that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely, we can do better than this. If there is even one step we can take to save another child, or another parent, or another town, from the grief that has visited Tucson, and Aurora, and Oak Creek, and Newtown, and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that — then surely we have an obligation to try.
In the coming weeks, I will use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens — from law enforcement to mental health professionals to parents and educators — in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this. Because what choice do we have? We can’t accept events like this as routine. Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?
But Obama never went any further toward providing his own answers to those questions. Instead, he returned to the tenor of the vigil service:
All the world’s religions — so many of them represented here today — start with a simple question: Why are we here? What gives our life meaning? What gives our acts purpose? We know our time on this Earth is fleeting. We know that we will each have our share of pleasure and pain; that even after we chase after some earthly goal, whether it’s wealth or power or fame, or just simple comfort, we will, in some fashion, fall short of what we had hoped. We know that no matter how good our intentions, we will all stumble sometimes, in some way. We will make mistakes, we will experience hardships. And even when we’re trying to do the right thing, we know that much of our time will be spent groping through the darkness, so often unable to discern God’s heavenly plans.
There’s only one thing we can be sure of, and that is the love that we have — for our children, for our families, for each other. The warmth of a small child’s embrace — that is true. The memories we have of them, the joy that they bring, the wonder we see through their eyes, that fierce and boundless love we feel for them, a love that takes us out of ourselves, and binds us to something larger — we know that’s what matters. We know we’re always doing right when we’re taking care of them, when we’re teaching them well, when we’re showing acts of kindness. We don’t go wrong when we do that.
In the face of such evil and horror, a little humility isn’t a bad quality to demonstrate. We’ll see whether that sticks, but the speech itself — on its own terms — expresses the anger, frustration, and grief that all Americans still feel after Newtown: how can we fix this? And perhaps the greater frustration: Is it really in our power to fix it?
Update: I wrote that the shootings took place on Thursday, but they took place on Friday. I’ve fixed it above.