It’s all about words – words to divide a nation, or words with the power to unite a people fractured by recrimination and grief.
As President Obama addressed the memorial service in Tucson for those gunned down in Saturday’s attack, the burden on his shoulders was a heavy one. For this was not just a speech to honour the victims: Obama had to find a way of restoring a degree of tolerance, and of restraint.
Restraint has been pretty thin on the ground in these last days of finger-pointing blame. Small wonder, perhaps, as six people lie dead and a congresswoman fights for her life in intensive care, that there’s a need to hold someone other than a lone gunman to account.
America has long been a divided country – even when Obama was swept to power in 2008, the fervour of his own supporters served mainly to entrench the equally fervent views of his Republican opponents. Two years on, the rise of the Tea Party has pushed the boundaries of political rhetoric to the fringes – and, some would say, well beyond. It’s come to the point where using gun metaphors seems almost a routine part of the debate. A short step, for some, from cross hairs on a map of Arizona to the tragedy in Tucson, guilt by association for a random act of violence.
Or perhaps that’s just what political activists want to think. Look at the latest poll, by CBS, and it suggests some 57 per cent of those surveyed don’t believe there’s any link between the strident tone of political debate and the attack. Look a bit closer at the poll, though, and it, too, reflects the partisan divide: although the vast majority of Republicans reject the connection, Democrats are almost evenly split.
Of course, comments like “Don’t retreat, instead RELOAD” seem pretty incendiary on the face of it, and even more sinister have been the placards and banners spotted at various rallies depicting Obama with a noose or dressed as Hitler. It’s relentlessly hostile, and no kind of behaviour for a civilised country. But responsible for a mass murder?
Jon Stewart, in a rather sober note on The Daily Show, insisted that vitriolic rhetoric was not to blame: finger-pointing, he said, was “as predictable as it is dispiriting”. And writing in Slate, John Dickerson said the catastrophe had become irresistible: “See, conservative talk is dangerous. Or: see, liberals will immediately turn any tragedy into a political weapon.”
It’s the rush to judgement, Dickerson says, that is a product of our insta-opinion age: “Better to be wrong, loud and fast than slow and considered.”
Sarah Palin’s own response last night, in a video on her Facebook page – was to condemn the attack but also to accuse her accusers. “Journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn,” she said. “That is reprehensible.”
So Obama’s task at the Tucson memorial service – of restoring a proper civility to the nation’s discourse, of focusing on healing and “pulling together as a country” – was made doubly hard. Especially in Arizona, a state where he managed to win 45 per cent of the vote back in those heady, hopeful days of ’08, but where he’s seen his popularity slump ever since. It’s a state that has pioneered a highly controversial immigration law, a state where one Republican congressman has described Obama as an “enemy of humanity” for his policy on abortion rights.
So, has he succeeded in capturing the moment, in rediscovering the light after the darkness that descended from above? Perhaps he found inspiration from Bill Clinton’s equally challenging address after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, when he, too, attacked the “purveyors of hatred and division” who “leave the impression, by their very words, that violence is acceptable”.
Speaking last year on the 15th anniversary of those attacks, Clinton looked back at the moment credited with turning around his political fortunes. “The words we use really do matter,” he said. “There’s this vast echo chamber, and they go across space, and they fall on the serious and the delirious alike.”
Amid the myriad shrill voices that shout constantly into the ether, Barack Obama still has the ultimate megaphone. He always set out to restore tolerance and a return to civility. Last night came his clarion call. “Let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy and to remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.”
An opportunity, then, not to score political points, but to seize the power of the presidency in order to transcend a national tragedy. And rarely has there been a more important time to achieve it.
Felicity Spector is senior producer for Channel 4 News.