12/17/2012WASHINGTON -- If this was not President Obama's finest hour, one has to wonder when or where it will be.
His speech before the disbelieving parents, children, clergymen and neighbors of Newtown, Conn., Sunday night carried through on the difficult task of being mournful one moment, intellectual the next and bitterly angry the next. Suddenly, unless I'm mistaken, the man who never quite became a convincing leader during his first term became a president one could believe in.
For the first time, he made you believe he would -- yes, he WOULD! -- follow through on his promise that this country, and especially its schools and universities, should not be open firing ranges for every "poor" disturbed boy who needs to express himself. This time, you believed it.
The president's words, of course, were far more elegant than my bitter and sarcastic ones. He started eloquently:
"This is our first task, caring for our children. It's our first job. If we don't get that right, we don't get anything right. That's how as a society we will be judged. And by that measure, can we truly say, as a nation, that we're meeting our obligations? ...
"I've been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we're honest with ourselves, the answer is no. ... We will have to change."
He then reminisced about some of his earlier speeches to the nation. You doubtless remember the place names: Tucson, Aurora and Oak Creek in his first term; Columbine, Blacksburg and many, too many more before that. All strange, troubled, mentally disturbed -- or perhaps only arrogantly vicious -- young men who either couldn't find their way or expected the way to be made for them. All with guns, guns, guns.
Adam Lanza, the skinny, socially awkward, oddly ever-silent late teen, first killed his mother with a burst of gunfire as she lay in bed sleeping. By all accounts, she had been aware of his "problems" and tried to deal with them, as had school psychologists and teachers, who early on spotted his meek and withdrawn behavior, but never quite acted upon it.
Think how hideous killing one's mother is. There's a huge literature on the killing of a father. It's akin, on a plebeian level, to "killing the king." That's the phrase, incidentally, that was used repeatedly after the Watergate scandal describing the journalists who broke the story, thus "killing" the president of the United States. After that, for two decades, one would hear from young journalists: "When will I get the chance to kill my king?"
But history gives us few examples of killing the queen, or in effect, killing the mother. Perhaps this was also related to why a young man like Lanza would kill children. At least the politically inspired or ideologically motivated young men of modern history (the Red Brigades in Italy, the Black Panthers here, the various guerrilla units in Latin America) aimed at the police, at the military, at figures of authority.
And what about Adam's father? We know that he remarried and lived apart. He expressed his horror at what had happened -- but where was he in Adam's life? This is just precisely the kind of boy who most needs a father's guidance; did he ever try to give it, in this country of increasingly fatherless families?
The New York Times published a fascinating story Monday after the deaths. The paper traced how residents outside Newtown had increasingly noticed gunfire and even explosions in places where people should not have been shooting. There was rat-a-tat gunfire sometimes all day long. Some were firing at propane tanks just to see them explode. But nothing was really done. And now?
You surely remember the Second Amendment, which the gun nuts drag out every time one of their, shall we say, "extremists" causes a few deaths. It says Americans have the right to a "well-regulated militia." Is what we are seeing a militia, designed to protect a community, or an Adam Lanza, out to destroy it? Is it regulated? Please.
In the end, one looks at the pictures of Adam Lanza and wonders what else one would have needed to see? His eyes are expressionless and far away. He has an old hobo's hat pulled down over his forehead; formless, baggy clothes hang off him, as off a scarecrow.
Surely those of us from the South Side of Chicago, with fewer of the confusing platitudes of more sophisticated folk, would have recognized this boy as someone who should not be given guns, but who should be put safely under full-time care far away from where he could act out his problems.
And just as surely, President Obama was utterly correct when he said at the end of Sunday's inspiring and angry speech:
"We can't tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change. ... We can't accept events like this as routine.
"Are we really prepared to say that we're powerless in the face of such carnage? That the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?"
No, it is the price of our carelessness, the cost of our refusal to do what we know in our hearts we have to do to keep our country safe and sane.