At the very least, the speech brought the massacre and its aftermath back to the central point made in the wake of all national tragedies and collective sorrows: Let us dedicate ourselves to the improvement of ourselves, our community, and humankind so that the wound suffered might be given retroactive meaning beside the senseless nihilism of the event itself. It is, perhaps, utopian. But there’s no question it offers comfort, and gives us an image other than Jared Loughner’s terrifying face to focus on.
Posts For: January 12, 2011
So, the controversial part: Obama said that “at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized,” we should not “lay the blame . . . at the feet of those who happen to think different than we do.” Moreover, we should “make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.”
He went on: “Bad things happen and we have to guard against simple explanations in the aftermath. And the truth is none of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack. None of us can know with any certainty what might have stopped these shots from being fired or what thoughts lurked in the inner recesses of a violent man’s mind. . . . But what we cannot do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other. That we cannot do.”
Then: “Let’s make sure it’s not on the usual plane of politics and points-scoring and pettiness that drifts away in the next news cycle. The loss of these wonderful people should make everyone of us strive to be better. . . . And if . . . their death helps usher in more civility in our public discourse, let us remember it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy. It did not. But rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make them proud. ”
Was this a declaration that the massacre was not political? Sort of. And that’s good enough, because this was not a State of the Union address or a policy roll-out. At a service memorializing the deaths to which such a repulsive degree of politicization has already accrued, any overt political telegraphing would be unwelcome. We need to remember, after all, it was never Barack Obama who played politics with this tragedy in the first place.
Beyond that, his words, and particularly his focus on nine-year-old Christina-Taylor Green’s appreciation for America, were laudable and affecting. It is now only left to his base to be sane, respectful, and honest.
While the content of President Obama’s speech was entirely appropriate, one has to wonder about the tone of the event. The fact that his speech was interrupted several times by cheers and applause lent what was supposed to be a memorial service the air of a campaign rally. While it was a fine speech, I can’t help but question the way his audience thought it was appropriate to behave in this manner or why the president didn’t ask them to calm down and stop the demonstrations. If you tuned in without knowing the purpose of the gathering, you’d be hard pressed to guess that this was an evening of mourning.
The president’s speech was an opportunity for the country to turn the page from the partisan smearing that has characterized much of what he called the national “conversation” since the Arizona tragedy. And it appears that he is doing just that.
When he urged us to avoid laying the blame for the crime “at the feet of those who happen to think different than we do,” that was exactly what he needed to say. Of course, that is exactly what most of the liberal media has been doing since Saturday.
The question is, will his supporters listen to that advice?
Thoroughly appropriate. The accounts of lives cut short are bottomlessly sad. Period.
“One madman’s act of darkness.”
A hero, whether or not he accepts the term. He used the moment to do nothing other than honor those he admires and to appeal to a sense of American unity.
Watching Carlos Gonzales’s opening statement. Why are people cheering at a memorial service?
Jonathan, you make excellent points about the common use of the term “blood libel” to describe wider acts of anti-Semitic thinking and behavior other than its original meaning — and why the day-long attack on Sarah Palin for using the phrase has an absurd tinge to it. Today, asked about the “blood libel,” for example, the political consultant and speechwriter Robert Shrum described it as “centuries of killing Jews in Europe,” which describes the result of the “blood libel” but not the term’s meaning. Shrum’s ignorance was mirrored by, for example, Nate Silver of the New York Times, who said on Twitter that he didn’t know the history of the “blood libel” either.
But neither Silver nor Shrum is equivalent to Palin. While Palin should not be faulted for saying things she didn’t say or committing errors she didn’t commit, the fact is she has achieved a kind of national stature that exists in tension with her general tendency toward speaking as a lone outsider battling larger forces. She is larger than many of those forces now, and large figures must move gracefully if they are not to topple over.
Complaining about “a blood libel” was a mistake in tone, as the fact that we are still discussing it indicates. Her talk was intended to still the waters, not roil them against her further. But her use of the phrase made that impossible. Whoever advises her should have known that, and if no one who advises her did know that, she needs to get a few more advisers with better judgment.
Politico reports on some surreal comments offered by Hillary Clinton in an interview earlier today with CNN:
Jared Loughner is an extremist because he carried out the Arizona shootings while acting on his “political views,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in an interview with CNN while continuing her trip in the Middle East today.
“Based on what I know, this is a criminal defendant who was in some ways motivated by his own political views, who had a particular animus toward the congresswoman,” Clinton said. “And I think when you cross the line from expressing opinions that are of conflicting differences in our political environment into taking action that’s violent action, that’s a hallmark of extremism, whether it comes from the right, the left, from Al Qaeda, from anarchists, whoever it is. That is a form of extremism.”
Several things are stunning here. First and most obvious, she’s wrong. Loughner is of course the best-known certifiably apolitical American living today. At least he’s the only one about whom headlines declare: “HE DID NOT WATCH TV. HE DISLIKED THE NEWS. HE DIDN’T LISTEN TO POLITICAL RADIO.”
Second, since Secretary Clinton already tested out this erroneous analysis on Monday in a town-hall meeting in Abu Dhabi, one can responsibly infer that no member of the administration has gotten her up to speed in the two days since. What kind of systemic disrepair must the Obama administration — or at least the secretary of state’s office — be in to let this happen? Unless Barack Obama makes similarly absurd claims in his speech tonight, the administration’s message discipline is in shambles.
Third, perhaps she is up to speed but is pushing a false narrative in pursuit of a misguided diplomatic strategy. It is one thing to have facts wrong; but it’s still another for the secretary of state to invent an equivalence between organized global jihad and the actions of a mentally ill lone American murderer. It is grotesque to capitalize on the deliberate distortion of this massacre by implying that America is as susceptible to extremism as any country in the Middle East. It is also extremely dangerous. It broadcasts a willful ignorance and a lack of resolve.
No matter what, we are now forced to entertain great doubts about Secretary Clinton’s seriousness on terrorism. Even this far into Obama’s term, some serious foreign-policy thinkers were harboring a vague hope that Hillary Clinton provided a kind of anchor, keeping the naïve administration connected to hard-nosed reality. But her comments on Monday and today paint a picture of a key American official frightfully adrift.
As Sarah Palin has just learned, keeping up with the rules about using phrases that are associated with Jewish history is not as simple as it used to be. I was under the impression that the list of phrases that were considered off limits for general consumption was confined more or less to those associated with the Holocaust. Meaning, for instance, that the use of the word “holocaust” should be confined to discussion of events surrounding the genocide of Jews in Europe between 1933 and 1945. But even that stricture has been hard to enforce. Indeed, when an episode of the TV show The X-Files once referred to the mysterious death of amphibians in a lake as a “frog holocaust,” you knew that the word had become more of a metaphor than a specific historical term.
But when it comes to some people, the rules are apparently even more stringent than any of us might have thought. Thus, today Sarah Palin is being widely condemned for using the term “blood libel” when referencing the slanderous suggestions that she is in some way connected to the tragedy in Arizona. According to those who claim that Palin has somehow caused pain to the Jewish people, it is wrong to use that phrase to describe anything other than the false accusation that Jews kidnap and murder Christian children and use their blood to help bake matzoh for Passover. This canard was popularized during the Middle Ages by European Christians and has been revived in recent decades in the Arab world as Jew-hatred has become an unfortunate staple of contemporary Islamic culture.
But the idea that this term cannot be used to describe anything else is something new. Granted, most of the uses of this phrase that come quickly to mind have had Jewish associations. For example, the accusation that right-wing Zionists were behind the murder of Haim Arlosoroff, a Labor Zionist official who was killed on a Tel Aviv beach in 1933, has always been called a “blood libel” by those who believed the failed effort to pin the killing on Labor’s Jewish opposition was a political plot to discredit them. In just the past couple of years, the term “blood libel” has been applied by writers here at COMMENTARY to describe the false charges put forward by Human Rights Watch and the UN Goldstone Commission against Israeli forces fighting Hamas terrorists in Gaza, as well as to the malicious falsehoods published by a Swedish newspaper that claimed Israel was murdering Palestinians and then harvesting their organs for medical use.
So the claim that Palin has crossed some bright line in the sand and “stolen” a phrase that has always and should always be used to describe only one thing is absurd. Like so much else that has been heard from the left in the wake of the shootings in Arizona, this further charge against Sarah Palin is groundless. The fact is, those who are trying to link her or other conservatives to this crime are committing a kind of blood libel. Take issue with her politics or dislike her personality if that is your inclination, but the idea that she has even the most remote connection to this event is outrageous. So, too, is the manufactured controversy over “blood libel.”
This is a promising development. A gathering of Iraqi Sunni, Shiite, and Christian leaders met in Copenhagen today to discuss whether to issue a religious decree condemning the recent tide of violence against Christians, AFP is reporting:
“I hope that we will be able to produce a joint Shiite-Sunni fatwa (religious decree) against violence towards Christians,” said Canon Andrew White, head of the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East (FRRME) and vicar of St. George’s Church in Baghdad.
“There is a total unity between the Muslims and Christians: we need to do something radical,” White told AFP on the sidelines of the three-day closed-door meeting that began Wednesday.
The emergency summit at a heavily guarded Copenhagen hotel, organised by FRRME and the Danish foreign ministry, comes on the heels of a string of attacks on Christians in Iraq, as well as in neighbouring countries.
It is time “to think seriously about steps that need to be taken to protect all the minority communities,” White insisted.
And it looks like the summit has drawn some influential participants, including Sheikh Abdul Latif Humayem (a top Sunni adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki), Shiite leader Sheik Abduhaeem al-Zubairi (the representative for Iraq’s Assyrian community), and Archbishop Avak Asadourian (leader of Iraq’s Christian Council).
“This group of leaders has the power and influence to negotiate on behalf of the people they represent, to deny legitimacy to the use of violence and to call authoritatively for reconciliation and peaceful solutions,” Danish Foreign Minister Lene Espersen told the AFP.
It’s interesting that Iraqi leaders are using their own cultural mechanisms to push the liberal idea of religious tolerance. At a time when there’s been a lot of negativity about the influence of Iran over the Iraqi government, this is a good sign for those who remain optimistic about the future of democracy in Iraq.
Since I’ve been critical of New York Times reporters and columnists for what they’ve written about the Tucson massacre, it’s only fair to praise one as well.
David Brooks appeared on PBS’s The News Hour and wrote a column on the coverage of the killings in Arizona on Saturday. He was Brooks at his best: intelligent and informed (including about mental illness and the difference between correlation and causation), measured and careful in his words, but also quite heartfelt in expressing his views.
When asked on the program whether he thought the relationship between speech and violence was a “profoundly important debate” to have, he answered, “Yeah, but not today.” When asked why, he said, “Because this is in context of this horrific crime” — a crime in which political speech had nothing to do with the killings. And speaking for many of us, Brooks wrote: “I have no love for Sarah Palin, and I like to think I’m committed to civil discourse. But the political opportunism occasioned by this tragedy has ranged from the completely irrelevant to the shamelessly irresponsible.”
These are wise words. I only wish his Times colleagues were a fraction as responsible as David Brooks is.
If you want any further evidence of conservative support for the war effort in Afghanistan, look no further than Grover Norquist’s laughable effort to organize a “center-right” coalition against the war. Apparently, Grover wants to pull out of Afghanistan as a money-saving measure — a line of argument, which if followed to its natural conclusion, should also have led us to pull out of World War II while Hitler or Tojo were still in power or to end the Civil War while Jefferson Davis still ruled the South. Think of all the millions we could have saved by ending wars prematurely — quite a bonanza, especially if you ignore the rather substantial costs of defeat.
Norquist seems quite enamored of Ronald Reagan’s pullout from Lebanon after the suicide car-bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983. Perhaps he is not aware that this incident was routinely cited — along with the U.S. pullout from Somalia in 1993 — by Osama bin Laden in the 1990s to justify his belief that the U.S. was a “weak horse” that could be attacked with impunity. Note to Grover: Even the great Ronald Reagan was not infallible.
With arguments like that, it is no surprise that Norquist has attracted to his cause such conservative luminaries as … Steve Clemons? Jim Pinkerton? Charlie Kupchan? If those are genuine representatives of the conservative movement, then I’m Donald Duck.
Somehow I think the conservative base is pretty secure for the war effort, because it understands what Grover does not: that we are locked in an existential struggle against Islamist extremists and that defeat in Afghanistan would have severe consequences for us that make the cost of winning the war seem cheap by comparison. It’s the lack of liberal support for the war effort that we have to worry about.
Watch these AT&T commercials from 1993. Eerie, quite wonderful accuracy about what would be 18 years later (and note that the voice of the commercials, Tom Selleck, is on TV again in 2011 in the terrific new series Blue Bloods):
It’s only January 12, but this wins the award for cleverest human-rights campaign of 2011. The following comes from a petition put together by the organization CyberDissidents.org and is addressed to Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah:
We would like to extend the opportunity to you to co-sponsor the First Annual Saudi Women’s Grand Prix. Many Saudi Internet activists have voiced their desire for equal rights between men and women and this initiative is a direct response to their pleas.
Saudi women from all walks of life will be invited to partake in the joys of race-car driving. We will live-stream video of this event on the Internet throughout the Middle East.
Hosting the First Annual Saudi Women’s Grand Prix in Riyadh would be a fitting symbol of Islamic tolerance and equality. Allowing women to drive in this Grand Prix will not undermine the fabric of Saudi society, but rather will be a small, incremental reform toward empowering females.
The Grand Prix can be held on March 10th to commemorate the fifteen Saudi girls who died on that day in 2002 as the Kingdom’s religious police blocked them from fleeing their burning school because they were not fully covered.
We look forward to your reply.
Don’t we all. The eclectic group of signatories includes Janet Guthrie, the first female driver in the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500, and former CIA director James Woolsey. The CyberDissidents website invites you to add your name to the list.
Lately, the Saudis have been making some noise about lifting the driving ban on women. But it will surely take public displays of outside pressure to move things to the tipping point. The Freedom Agenda may be dead at the White House, but Americans’ foundational pursuit of liberty for all will not be squelched by a spell of bad policy.
It’s often said that some people have such a hysterical obsession with the dreaded “neocons” that they probably search for them under their beds before going to sleep at night. And after reading Jacob Heilbrunn’s ominously titled column “Are China’s Neocons Taking Power?” it sounds like he’s probably the type to keep a flashlight handy on his nightstand:
So China flew its experimental J-20 stealth fighter jet while Defense Secretary Robert Gates was visiting President Hu Jintao? It would be hard to think of a more calculated insult–and one that America should, and will, take in stride. The Los Angeles Times reports that China’s military didn’t even bother to inform the civilian leadership. Gates knew about the test. Hu didn’t.
What does that tell you?
The real snub wasn’t directed at Gates but at Hu and his associates. Could it be that the real China threat is a military going rogue? It’s clear that China’s military is balking at pretty much everything the Obama administration wants. It doesn’t want to rein in North Korea. It doesn’t want strategic talks with America.
Heilbrunn goes on to equate the belligerent segments of China’s military with American neoconservatives:
And for now, it looks as though China’s neocons have the upper hand. Like the neocons who wrecked American foreign policy, they may be poised to follow policies that are actually inimical to China’s true interests, while arguing that they are pursuing its true ones.
First, as Max pointed out, it’s troubling that Hu seemed unaware of the J-20 flight. But there may be a reason to take this story with a grain of salt. With Hu’s planned trip to the U.S. next week, it could be possible that either Chinese or U.S. officials would want to give the impression that the president wasn’t aware of the test. The timing of the demonstration was obviously a snub to Gates, and by claiming ignorance, Chinese officials might be trying to side-step an unpleasant confrontation.
Second, it’s pointless to try to affix to the military of the Chinese authoritarian regime a label that originated out of the complex politics of the United States. Simply being “hawkish” doesn’t make someone a neocon, as Heilbrunn appears to be suggesting. And needless to say, the Chinese military isn’t even interested in promoting democratic values in its own country, much less abroad.
Less than two years ago, the readers of the New York Times were being treated to Roger Cohen’s tribute to Iran’s supposedly kindly treatment of the remnant of a once-great Jewish community. Cohen’s rosy description of life inside the Islamist republic was widely scorned for his willingness to buy into the lies being peddled by the tyrants of Tehran. The Times columnist’s motive for trying to soften the image of that openly anti-Semitic government was to undermine support for sanctions or the use of force to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. The point was that if Iran’s eliminationist rhetoric about the State of Israel could be rationalized or its reputation for Jew-hatred wished away, it would be that much harder to forge an international consensus on the need to stop this regime for gaining nuclear capability.
In the intervening two years since Cohen’s fallacious pro-Iranian broadside, we haven’t heard much about the treatment of the small Jewish community there. But this week, via a report from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, we learned that the Iranian news agency FARS has announced that the site of the Tomb of Mordechai and Esther in the city of Hamdan has lost its official status as a religious pilgrimage site. The FARS report says that Iranian children are now being taught that the site, which honors the biblical heroine Queen Esther and her uncle Mordechai, who are the central figures in the story of the Jewish holiday of Purim, was “an arm of Israeli imperialism that impugns Iranian sovereignty.” FARS went on to say that the name of the shrine must be obliterated in order to teach Iranians to “beware of the crimes of the Jews.” It goes on to say that the site must become “a Holocaust memorial” to the “Iranian victims of Esther and Mordechai” and be placed under the supervision of the state religious-endowments authority. This is, of course, the same Iranian government that officially denies the fact of the actual Holocaust.
The Iranian account speaks of the events of the Purim story, in which Esther and Mordechai foiled a plan hatched by the King’s minister Haman to exterminate the Jews of the Persian Empire, who then strike back against the forces arrayed to slaughter them.
The action against the tomb appears to be a response to a demonstration by Iranian students who called for its destruction in response to a false report that Israel was digging beneath the al-Aksa mosque in Jerusalem.
While we cannot know whether the Iranians will follow through on this threat and actually tear down the tomb or transform it into a center of anti-Jewish hate, it does provide yet another insight into the virulent nature of the attitudes of those in power there. Not satisfied with whipping up hatred against the State of Israel and the tiny, cowed remnant community that still lives there, the Iranians are now striking out against biblical Jews. The vicious nature of this regime is rooted in a view of Islam that apologists for Tehran have consistently sought to ignore. While the blow against Esther and Mordechai may be purely symbolic, it must be placed in the context of a long-running campaign of incitement against Jews and Israel that makes the possible acquisition of nuclear arms by this country even more alarming.
The Iranian war on Purim makes it even more imperative that they never be allowed to gain the power to do what the ayatollah’s ancient hero Haman attempted: the physical elimination of a Jewish population. Anyone who thinks that we can live with a nuclear Iran needs to consider the madness of allowing a government that thinks the Purim story should be reversed the power to do just that.
It’s been continuing to single out the most humanitarian state in the Middle East for unwarranted criticism, of course. NGO Monitor just released a new analysis of the activities of Human Rights Watch over the past year and found that the organization continued to aim its ire at Israel while ignoring some of the world’s worst human rights abusers.
Here’s a brief summary of the findings:
• In 2010, HRW published 51 documents on “Israel and the Occupied Territories,” more than on any other country in the Middle East. Compare that to the organization’s research on some of the most notorious human rights abusers — it published only 44 documents on Iran, 34 on Egypt, and 33 on Saudi Arabia.
• The group overlooks some of the worst human rights abuses in closed countries, like Syria and Libya and Algeria. NGO Monitor writes that “One of three major reports on Israel in 2010 consisted of 166 pages, while ten years of research on human rights violations in Syria produced a 35-page report.”
• HRW’s credibility also suffered a blow last December when it threw in its lot with the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. The group’s report, titled “Separate and Unequal,” called on the U.S. to withhold funding equivalent to the amount spent on the settlements and to scrutinize the tax-exempt status of Americans organizations that give support to the settlements. I blogged more about this report here.
• The director of HRW’s Middle East division met with Hamas leaders, supported the anti-Israel Caterpillar boycott, and praised Lebanon on human rights.
• HRW’s founder, Robert Bernstein, has continued to publicly condemn the organization’s growing anti-Israel bias.
• HRW also reduced its transparency in 2010, removing its annual reports and the names of its staffers from the website. These changes allegedly came after media reports questioned the credibility and ideological bias of the organization’s employees and publications.
The entire report from the NGO Monitor can be read here. HRW’s bias against the Jewish state isn’t a new development, but this analysis really crystallizes the sheer amount of time and resources the group wastes on demonizing Israel while millions suffer under totalitarian regimes around the world. Hopefully, as organizations like the NGO Monitor continue to expose the ideological motivation behind HRW, the media and the public will finally begin to take its reports less seriously.
Secretary of Defense Bob Gates has been visiting China at a time when it is beginning to flex its military muscles in ways that should alarm its neighbors and their protector — us. While Gates was meeting with President Hu Jintao, the People’s Liberation Army was testing its J-20 Stealth fighter, a clear challenge to American power in the western Pacific. To make matters worse, American officials got the distinct impression that President Hu had not been aware of the test beforehand.
That raises questions about how firmly civilians are actually in control of the armed forces — not normally a problem in a Communist state, which is designed to have parallel lines of authority (party and state, military and secret police) precisely to ensure that the oligarchs at the top are in control of everything that happens. It is no secret that the Chinese armed forces are full of ultra-jingoistic officers who make hair-curling threats about going to war against the United States. If they are not firmly under the sway of the central party bosses, that is a worrisome development. Even if they are under control, however, we can hardly relax, for the senior party leadership has indicated that it is bent on pursuing a nationalistic agenda, with Chinese triumphalism replacing Marxism-Leninism as their ruling theology.
That is all the more reason why we need to ensure that our own military is strong enough to deter Chinese adventurism — something that further defense cuts in Washington will endanger.