In his remarks Wednesday night to a memorial service for the victims of last Saturday's massacre in Tucson, Arizona, President Obama refused to offer any political explanation for the attempted assassination of Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
On the contrary, his entire speech was an argument against such an analysis, as he declared the causes of the massacre to be unknowable. It was a statement of intellectual bankruptcy, carried out, as usual in modern American politics, amid nonstop invocations of religion.
Sitting in the audience, unacknowledged and unmentioned by Obama, was the sheriff of Pima County, Clarence Dupnik, who spoke out Saturday, attributing the attempted assassination of a prominent Democrat to the promotion of bigotry and political violence by the right-wing media and politicians.
Dupnik's bluntness made him a target of the ultra-right, with the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh all denouncing his remarks. In his speech in Tucson, Obama effectively joined in this campaign, offering a full-fledged amnesty for the right.
Four or five decades ago, an occasion such as this in the United States would have seen a clear demarcation between the invocation by the preachers and the speeches by political leaders. Wednesday night's affair, by contrast, was an awkward combination of campus pep rally and sermonizing.
The bizarre tone was epitomized by Janet Napolitano, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, and Attorney General Eric Holder, who took the podium in succession and confined their remarks to reading passages from the Bible.
These are the two top officials in the US government for domestic security and law enforcement, and they had nothing to say about the murder of a federal judge and the attempted murder of a congresswoman.
Obama followed, invoking "scripture" in his opening remarks. He then began to tell the story of the January 8 shootings, relating how violence had erupted in the midst of the "quintessentially American scene" of a legislator meeting with her constituents.
Actually, it is the sudden outbreak of homicidal mayhem that has become a "quintessential American scene" in recent years. Obama made no acknowledgment of this, not once referring to such tragedies as the massacre at Virginia Tech, the endless series of workplace shootings, or the more explicitly political events like the bombings and murders at abortion clinics.
Obama turned to the Bible again. "Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding," he said, going on to quote from the Book of Job.
"Bad things happen, and we have to guard against simple explanations afterward," he said. "None of us can know what triggered the attack or what could have been done to prevent it."
Obama's invocation of religion had a wholly secular purpose: to provide sanction for his rejection of any political assessment of the events of January 8 in Tucson.
"When a tragedy strikes, it is part of our nature to demand an explanation, to impose an order on the chaos," Obama said.
Here Obama's speechwriter was virtually paraphrasing the opening passage of the column written Tuesday by conservative pundit George Will in the Washington Post, denouncing charges that the political right had moral responsibility for the Tucson shootings.
"It would be merciful if, when tragedies such as Tucson's occur, there were a moratorium on sociology," Will wrote. "The craving is for banishing randomness and the inexplicable from human experience."
Obama went on to repudiate those among his liberal supporters who have pointed to the role of right-wing ideology in inspiring the Tucson massacre, calling for "a good dose of humility, rather than pointing fingers and assigning blame."
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