Obama’s tears

Yesterday was a busy day for me. It was the official launch of my index card book. Yet what I will most remember about the day has nothing to do with that. It was the sight of the president wiping away tears as he discussed the continuing tragedy of gun violence. Mark already mentioned it. I just want to a little something.

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Mayors, governors, and presidents bear witness to pain and tragedy. That’s particularly true in the area of gun violence, where politicians regularly meet with and seek to comfort survivors of horrific crimes. Politicians at that level are tough customers. They remain human beings. Their exposure to suffering and loss changes them, whatever their politics or the quality and ideological orientation of their policy decisions. It has to. It is a burden they carry. That is true of Presidents who comfort the victims of war. That is true of Chicago’s Mayor Emanuel, who has met with many grieving mothers and fathers. That is true of President Obama, father of two daughters, who comforted grieving parents of Sandy Hook.

Last night I got the chance to watch President Obama’s speech about gun violence. Many people in the room with him have been personally touched by violence. Some had lost young children, spouses, parents. President Obama quietly teared up when describing the murder of first-graders in Newtown. The moment was powerful, not least because President Obama is generally so controlled and dignified, emotionally self-contained.

This attracted the usual ridicule on Twitter and rightwing news media. In that moment, though, the president showed something valuable to many young and not-so-young people who might have been watching. He transparently expressed his sadness and frustration about the suffering that has touched so many people right there with him in that White House room. In doing so, he set a wonderful example.

Young people, particularly those who have witnessed sadness or trauma in their lives, need to see strong and effective adults who are unashamed to express their basic humanity. Shedding tears over mass murder of children is healthy and sane. It is certainly more manly than the callow macho posturing we’ve become accustomed to seeing, particularly in this election season.

It’s ok to care. We need to show our kids that.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

16 thoughts on “Obama’s tears”

  1. May I ask a quick question about the statute that Pres. Obama is enforcing? Does that statute leave the details of what defines a licensed gun dealer to the executive branch? If the answer is yes, then his actions would mean that he is “enforcing existing gun laws,” something the NRA supposedly supports. If someone can help with the language of the statute and with the details of its enforcement provisions, that might provide an important rebuttal to the Republican talking points, if his executive authority extends to defining a gun dealer in the way he is seeking to do.

    Sometimes details matter. This is an instance of when they do.

    1. Here's the relevant part of the statute, with extraneous words omitted:

      The term “dealer” means any person engaged in the business of selling firearms at wholesale or retail

      The term “engaged in the business” means a person who devotes time, attention, and labor to dealing in firearms as a regular course of trade or business with the principal objective of livelihood and profit through the repetitive purchase and resale of firearms, but such term shall not include a person who makes occasional sales, exchanges, or purchases of firearms for the enhancement of a personal collection or for a hobby, or who sells all or part of his personal collection of firearms

      1. Thanks, Mark. The definition of "personal collection" could be a bit elastic, and I am still not certain what the role of POTUS is in what sounds like the kind of rulemaking that is always being done by regulatory agencies at all levels. I work in a state agency, and we have to create specific details in lengthy documents to implement the section of a statute which fits into one column of print. There is some specialized and detailed knowledge required to do this, and the governor's office is only vaguely aware of our existence. I gather that Pres. Obama's executive orders will have to be posted for a period of public comment, similar to what happens at my agency's level. Mapping from one level to another is probably not easy. I am wondering if his orders will come through BATF or some such federal agency. Maybe he has the constitutional authority to issue them from the White House but I have not heard if there is a particular organizational pathway for the rules to take effect.

        1. These are not "Executive Orders." I'm told it will be handled as a normal rulemaking by BATFE.

        2. Obama was careful to leave the huge Clean Power Plan regulation to be issued formally by the EPA under the Clean Air Act in the normal way. IIRC there was no signing ceremony. However, he personally signed off on the Keystone decision, on the advice of the State Department. He is in his way a strict constitutionalist. Quaere: at the formal opening for signature of the Paris Agreement on April 22 in New York, will he sign for the USA or John Kerry?

  2. My (late) sister could cry on demand. It's a useful skill for manipulating people, which anyone can learn if they take the trouble. Am I cynical? Maybe you're not cynical enough. Or perhaps you just don't mind being manipulated.

    There were just short of 500 homicides in Chicago last year. And that was just one city, Democratic controlled by a personal friend of the President. Did this bring him to tears? Apparently not. But that was only a few hundred people, and more representative of homicide in America. Nothing to tear up about.

    You'll doubtless think me a heartless SOB for not being moved by his tears to ignore the utter pointlessness of what he proposes, it's irrelevance to the real cause of murder in America, urban gangs. And I guess that was the point of his crying, after all.

    1. Brett no doubt missed the next sentence of that speech, where the President says "This happens every day in Chicago."

    2. Quit with the flimflam Brett. Do you think all gun sales should come with a background check, or not? Please try to keep your answer brief and on point. I don't need a 3 act play about the 2nd Amendment. (But if you are against background checks for gun sales, I am interested in *why* you dislike them.)

    3. Do you have any evidence about the gangs? There is an association of homicides with cities, as you would expect: from CDC data, 60% of gun homicides are in the 62 cities of the 50 largest metros. That means 40% are not, which by themselves would give a gun homicide rate higher than anywhere in Europe. Are there gangs in towns like Albany and Bakersfield? (Not a rhetorical question, I really don't know.) Also, suicides are apparently unconnected.

      1. Some small cities do have noticeable gang problems, yes. I can't point you toward hard data, unfortunately, but I can tell you anecdotally from both firsthand and secondhand experience that several of Pennsylvania's smaller cities have a gang presence.

    4. The widespread questioning of Obama's sincerity by right-wingers tells me that the right really is full of slime buckets.

      Fake tears?? Come on.

      You don't like the policy? OK. But stop with the ridiculous personal BS. You do your credibility no favors. And it needs some.

  3. It would seem nearly impossible not to be moved by witnessing that speech yesterday. Yet, many on the right were sarcastic and downright nasty about it. I would challenge any one of them to say the same things to the face of families touched by gun violence. Easy but cowardly to criticize from the anonymity or safety of the Internet. More troubling than their snarkiness, though, was the stunning lack of empathy and understanding they exhibited. I agree totally with you that it is an important example for a President to show his real feelings about something as tragic as gun violence. The job seems overwhelming, doesn’t it?

    1. When it all happened, I remember feeling quite choked up making mental pictures of all the grandparents who had already booked their flights to Connecticut and had been looking forward all year to making that visit, and also of the parents who were carefully hiding new bicycles and new doll houses until Christmas morning arrived. Thinking about it still gets to me, and if I had to speak publically about it, I would have a hard time not losing it altogether.

      1. These are the realities that I can scarcely bare to parse: the sweetly decorated rooms now forever empty, the clothes in the closet, the lives that were supposed to be filled with all of the successes and disappointments that make us human. I’d be ashamed if I couldn’t be moved to tears over the wounded, unmendable hearts that are left behind.

        Losing a child to illness or accident is tragedy enough; to lose entire swaths of them because someone who is mentally ill or simply homicidal has easy access to firearms is unforgivable. This happens so very rarely outside of the USA that it has become the great shame and failing of our nation.

        I’ve gotten used to the fact that the likes of Brett Bellmore are going to find fault with every single thing Barack Obama does as President. But until the rest of us get sick of corporations creating public policy that becomes law, the massacres will continue. As the gun lobby goes—with my over 300 million guns in civilian hands—I’m unconvinced that it’s not too late.

        1. The gun manufacturers are a big part of the lobby, and they have no interest in the stock of guns, only its increment through new sales. It's a bug from their point of view that guns last so long. Obama's real tears combine with real political calculation: requiring high-tech user locks does no harm to gunmakers, and allows a large recall down the road when opinion has shifted a bit more. Two-thirds of American households (65%), ergo voters, do not own a gun, and the share is increasing. The Tokugawa shoguns removed guns from Japan in the 1600s by effectively nationalising gun manufacture – the makers had to move to Edo and sell muskets only to the court, as luxury items. They then shrank this controlled market to extinction. The Purdey shotguns sold to grouse-hunting plutocrats in Britain are not much of a threat to the public, they are simply too expensive.

  4. One way professional actors cry on demand is by thinking of something really sad. Like a couple of school rooms full of murdered children and teachers. Thinking about this, in a room full of the murdered children's loved ones, might not do the trick for Brett, but it would for quite a few people. On the other hand, if I heard that someone had to pay higher taxes in order to provide medical care to poor people, it wouldn't affect me at all. So maybe I'm a monster too.

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