Obama's selective inability to judge the motives of mass killers

From Warsaw, however, President Obama was keen to play coy. “I think,” Obama said, just a touch too calmly, that “it’s very hard to untangle the motives of this shooter. I’ll leave that to psychologists and people who study these kinds of incidents.”

If sedulous detachment were the president’s usual mode, one could mount all sorts of defenses in his favor. Perhaps, one might posit, Obama does not think it wise to comment on the intentions of terrorists, lest his bully pulpit act as a recruitment tool? Perhaps, until such time as investigations are complete, he believes that silence is the most appropriate course? Or perhaps he considers that mass-murder is an indication of mental illness, and that the claims killers make about their motivations are always a distraction? But — and this is key — sedulous detachment is not the president’s usual mode. On the contrary: When he wants to be, Barack Obama can be as incisive as the best of us. When, in June of last year, a white supremacist killed nine African Americans in a Charleston church, Obama was admirably forthright with his denunciation and his grief. Famously, he sang “Amazing Grace” at the memorial service; pointedly, he took aim at the Confederate battle flag, which still flew a few feet from the South Carolina statehouse; and, in an early public address, he insisted that it was not incumbent upon him “to be constrained about the emotions tragedies like this raise.” “The fact that this took place in a black church,” Obama proposed, “raises questions about a dark part of our history.”

None of these judgments were inappropriate. What happened in Charleston was an abomination of the highest order, and had the nation’s first black president felt unable to express his indignation and his sorrow, something would have been awry. But one can simultaneously acknowledge the power of that moment and be forgiven for wondering why Obama is so selective in his willingness to engage with the truth. If one is to be charitable, one must presume that Obama’s recent reticence was intended to calm rather than to mislead. And yet to be charitable in divining motive is not to be naïve in predicting outcomes, nor is it to refrain from asking why the rules do not apply equally at all times. If the president can speak of Charleston without causing a breach in the peace, why can’t he comment honestly elsewhere?