Carnage in Boston, ricin in Congress and devastation in West, Texas make this the worst week in years for the U.S. That the parents of some of the victims of Newtown were disappointed in the Senate yesterday adds to the gloom, and the president’s unbelievable timing for his fit of pique Wednesday added to the sense that the country is, genuinely, leaderless.
President Obama could not have known that a fertilizer factory would blow a couple of hours after he went on his rant against people who disagree with him. But he could not have not known that all day long the hapless media had been broadcasting speculation and rumor about bombs and bombers in Boston and poison letters in D.C. and that unease is back in the land in a way not felt since 2001.
The killers of Sandy Hook, Aurora and Tucson are monsters, hatched in a diseased culture and certain to have future versions already plotting their mayhem. They are, in a word, insane.
Terrorists, though, are a much colder, much more dangerous sort of fanatic, and as any reader of The Looming Tower knows – and shame on you if you haven’t bothered to read even this basic primer of the origins of Islamist terror – the threat is not going away any time soon, whether or not any particular bomber or terrorist in this country is an Islamist. (Among those who haven't bothered to read this book – Jim Wallis of Sojourners. Incredible for a man who purports to have much to tell us.)
The president’s job is to rally the country against all threats, both foreign and domestic, not to berate and belittle Americans of opposite political opinions, especially in a week of terror.
Recall President Obama's words from his first inaugural address:
On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.
That theme was missing from the Rose Garden yesterday. The president’s anger at being so visibly and thoroughly defeated – a defeat inflicted in part by members of his own party – led to his display of anger. That anger served no purpose, but it did reveal much.
It is really up to other people to proclaim national goals and nation purposes now – Marco Rubio is doing a fine job this week though there will be disagreements ahead about his legislative goals as well – and others will emerge from among governors and perhaps temporarily retired former secretaries of state.
But the president has lost it, choosing a week of terrible anguish and no little fear to divide the country rather than unify it and to chide an opposition rather than rally it to a common cause.
His failure is not singular. The GOP-led House of Representatives has sunk into a morass of the personal rule of Committee chairs that obstructs even the most obvious reforms such as the repeal of the jobs-destroying medical device tax. Majority Leader Eric Cantor and his chief deputy Kevin McCarthy seem to have adopted a wait-out-the-Speaker’s-last-two-years strategy and trust to the power of redistricting and the enmity engendered by an angry, divisive president to protect their majority through the travails of 2014.
That’s a bad bet. It is people like Marco Rubio and Rand Paul – people who are visibly leading and tackling real and difficult problems, often face-to-face with critics – and governors like Scott Walker and John Kasich who are grappling with hard choices who are winning the admiration of voters.
There are real leaders in the country. They just aren’t in power in D.C. Yet. Eric Cantor should be among them, leading and visibly calling for his colleagues to rally around hard things that need doing now. The country is hungry for people who will do just that.
It is good to remember that principled leadership – firm but never angry, articulate and passionate in defense of its beliefs but open to argument and persuasion – is genuinely charismatic and always necessary. It is important to remember that in a week when so many things and people failed, most obviously the president.
Catastrophe illumines suffering but also capacity and character, and their absence.