It was the 11th time since the beginning of his presidency that a mass shooting compelled him to give a condolence speech. Maybe this is why American President Barack Obama did not hide the dejection he still feels, nearly a week after the assassination of five police officers in Dallas, Texas.
In front of police officers gathered in the Texan town to honor the memory of their five colleagues killed during a demonstration last Thursday, the president declared, “I’m here to say we must reject such despair. I’m here to insist that we are not as divided as we seem.”
He went on to say, “I’m not naive. I have spoken at too many memorials during the course of this presidency. I’ve hugged too many families who have lost a loved one […] And I’ve seen how a spirit of unity, born of tragedy, can gradually dissipate.” Recognizing that even his words could be inadequate, the president turned to the Bible: “Let us love, not with words or speech, but with actions and in truth,” he said.
As a symbol of unity, the president and his wife, Michelle Obama, sat next to former President George W. Bush. “Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions,” said the Republican, who has lived in Dallas since his departure from the White House.
A Fault Line in Democracy
The murder of five police officers – Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Lorne Ahrens and Michael Smith – was not merely an act of “demented violence” but of racial hatred, which has exposed a fault line in American democracy, said Barack Obama. In front of him five empty chairs, draped with folded American flags, recalled the lives cut short by Micah Johnson, a U.S. Army reservist who opened fire on law enforcement personnel during a demonstration in memory of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, who were shot dead under police fire.
The president had carefully prepared his speech the day before. Trapped between the expectations of police and those of the civil rights campaigners, Barack Obama once more highlighted the heroism of the police officers, while recognizing the racial bias of the American criminal justice system. Behind him, a row of police officers remained silent at first. Then he declared that “we ask the police to do too much and we ask too little of ourselves.” This time he got the approval of the police.
Francis Langlois, an associate member of the Canadian organization for the study of strategic and diplomatic studies of the Raoul-Dandurand Chair, emphasized the fact that Obama is in an extremely difficult position. “He must seek out two opposing groups and tell them to work together. He is the chief ‘consoler.’” As such, his decision to attend the ceremony with George W. Bush is not insignificant. Professor Langlois reminds us that “Obama said that he wanted to unite America. He said that there are not two Americas.”
The message of unity does not seem to have gotten through to the National Association of Police Organizations. In a document published on Tuesday, the coalition – which represents more than 240,000 American police officers – attacked Black Lives Matter, a movement that the association considers to be violent and wants to see designated as such by the Obama administration. “These responses [from elected representatives and the Obama administration], or lack thereof, are why officers feel they have a target on their backs and do not have the support of their elected officials,” the association wrote in a long statement.
On the other hand, civil rights campaigners have criticized the president’s decision to cut a trip to Poland short in order to be in Dallas, but not to go to Minnesota or Louisiana, where Philando Castile and Alton Sterling had been killed. “Politically, it’s a good decision,” says François Langlois. “It says that ‘we want stability, we are behind law and order, we do not want riots.’” He also suggested that, in addition, the president – who is never completely at ease on questions of race – is possibly thinking about his departure, bearing in mind that the Democrats will probably have more work to do in convincing a section of the white electorate than they will in rallying Black voters.