Presidents are called upon, in moments of great horror and great sorrow, to speak of love and solidarity.
President Obama did just that on Sunday afternoon, when he responded to the worst mass shooting in modern American history—“an act of terror and
an act of hate”—by declaring, “In the face of hate and violence, we will love one another.”
The president recognized that those who died at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando were members of a community of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender people, and allies who gathered in the sort of dance club that has always been more than just a dance club. He spoke movingly of what the club scene means for people who have historically faced discrimination and, yes, hatred, because of their sexuality.
“This is an especially heartbreaking day for all our friends—our fellow Americans—who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. The shooter targeted a nightclub where people came together to be with friends, to dance and to sing, and to live. The place where they were attacked is more than a nightclub—it is a place of solidarity and empowerment where people have come together to raise awareness, to speak their minds, and to advocate for their civil rights,” said Obama. “So this is a sobering reminder that attacks on any American—regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation—is an attack on all of us and on the fundamental values of equality and dignity that define us as a country. And no act of hate or terror will ever change who we are or the values that make us Americans.”
Obama’s recognition that the values that make us Americans are shaped by a sense of love and solidarity was beautiful. And good.
But what makes rhetoric beautiful and good is an understanding that words that are spoken might lead to action. The words must express more than sympathy; they must express a vision for how to overcome tragedy. So Obama spoke of necessary action—explaining, “Today marks the most deadly shooting in American history. The shooter was apparently armed with a handgun and a powerful assault rifle. This massacre is therefore a further reminder of how easy it is for someone to get their hands on a weapon that lets them shoot people in a school, or in a house of worship, or a movie theater, or in a nightclub. And we have to decide if that’s the kind of country we want to be. And to actively do nothing is a decision as well.”