Even in the wake of an unspeakable atrocity like that which occurred in Dallas on Thursday night, the president could not resist the opportunity to inject politics into the moment. Barack Obama’s calls for politically polarizing new gun control laws in the immediate aftermath of this divisive and racially-charged attack on police was ill-advised but hardly unexpected. When it comes to the issue of gun violence, Obama is a man with a hammer in a field of nails. It was, however, his decision to play dumb about the attacker’s motives that was even more disconcerting. It is behavior like that which is at the root of a populist backlash today.
“I think it’s very hard to untangle the motives of this shooter,” the president told reporters at a press conference. “By definition, if you shoot people who pose no threat to you, you have a troubled mind.”
If Obama was attempting to say that mass killers are definitionally disturbed and, therefore, we should disregard their stated motives, that’s a defensible proposition. But the president has not been consistent here. In fact, he has a conspicuous habit of thrusting his hands skyward in a shrug whenever bad actors commit atrocities that could cast a negative light on himself or his administration.
The Dallas gunman, Micah Xavier Johnson, wasn’t vague about what inspired his murderous rampage. “The suspect said he was upset at white people,” said Dallas chief of police David Brown. “The suspect stated he wanted to kill white people, especially white officers.” You don’t get much more cut and dried than that.
So why has the president decided to be deliberately obtuse when it comes to Johnson’s motives? A charitable interpretation of Obama’s thought process might lead one to conclude that he is trying to defuse a volatile situation by refusing to legitimize the racist fantasies of a mass murderer. That would be prudent, even laudable, but it would be intellectually dishonest to disregard the fact that Barack Obama is staring down the barrel of a disastrous legacy on race relations.
From the rise of a racially and economically anxious, majority white populist backlash to the frustrations of the Black Lives Matter movement, Americans are surrounded by evidence that racial antipathies are on the rise. A CNN/KFF poll found last year that 64 percent of the nation thinks that race relations have soured in the last decade. USA Today and CBS News polls confirm that Americans increasingly disapprove of Obama’s handling of the issue of race.
This was not predestined. When he took office, broad majorities thought that the president’s election and his talent for oration signaled a new era of racial comity was upon us. It was Obama’s habit of weighing in imprudently on racial controversies and running a reelection campaign that indulged the premise that opposition to his administration was rooted in racism combined to squander this opportunity.
It is often the case that, when Obama has something to lose politically, he discovers circumspection and nuance. That habit is evident in his bizarre refusal to call ISIS “ISIS.” Obama leads an administration that is doggedly determined not to call this terrorist organization by its name. Some have suggested that the president’s objective here is, again, to rob the terrorist organization of its legitimacy by calling it “ISIL.” Or maybe he simply wants to avoid calling this group by a name which designates the territory it conquered under Barack Obama’s nose. Again, this depends on your inclination toward charitable interpretations.
When radical Islamic militants conduct attacks in the name of radical Islam, we are also often privy to obscene lectures about complex motives. “It is possible that this was terrorist-related, but we don’t know,” Obama told reporters after 14 people were killed by ISIS-pledged murderers in San Bernardino, “it’s also possible that this was workplace related.” Only three days later during a White House address did Obama concede that there was no “workplace related” motive in San Bernardino.
It was in that speech that he also confessed that an attack in Chattanooga was an ISIS-inspired assault on American uniformed military personnel. Previously, the FBI had insisted that it might never release information in regard to what led 24-year-old Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez to attack a Naval and Marine Reserve recruiting center.
This same bizarre self-censorship led the nation’s attorney general to call the slaughter of gay club-goers in Orlando an act of “hate” as opposed to a premeditated terrorist attack. But so as to “avoid re-victimizing” the survivors of this attack and the loved ones of those who perished, the Department of Justice released 911 transcripts censoring the words “the Islamic State” and its self-styled leader, “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.” All this approach accomplished was to insult the nation’s intelligence.
Obama was, however, less cautious when addressing the motivations of Dylann Roof after he attacked churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina. “The fact that this took place in a black church obviously also raises questions about a dark part of our history,” Obama said at the time. “This is not the first time that black churches have been attacked. And we know that hatred across races and faiths pose a particular threat to our democracy and our ideals.” Roof’s motives were explicitly racist, and it was important to hear a clear denunciation of that bankrupt worldview from the president. But why does it seem that, to the president, some motives are clearer than others?
It is the refusal of Obama and the liberal movement he leads to speak plainly about episodes of politically inconvenient violence that have in part inspired a self-destructive populist backlash against political correctness. That fact seems obvious enough to most observers. But it’s probable that this assertion lacks a certain subtlety and contextual nuance to those who seek exculpation in imprecise language.