What are we going to do about Barack Obama? More than any president in memory he has seeped into every aspect of the nation’s collective political consciousness—not the influence or charisma or persona of Obama but the fact of him. We’ve become so vested in him one way or another that no one is capable of dispassion about anything that has to do with him even indirectly. This includes those who have supported him and find themselves rationalizing, emotionally if not intellectually, how a former constitutional lawyer can have a record on civil liberties that’s occasionally confounding when it isn’t dismaying. It also includes those to the left of Obama who have never trusted him and have been predisposed from the outset to finding him compromised and wanting.
This was going to be the week when we learned what last week meant, which is turning out to be true in a way we didn’t anticipate barely 72 hours ago. We were going to learn whether last week was the beginning of a crisis that would fatally wound if not kill the Obama presidency or if it was merely the most egregious manifestation of right-wing bad faith. Instead the cataclysmic Oklahoma tornado, along with the gathering politics of the scandal surrounding the Internal Revenue Service, inevitably engage the American public in a consideration of government itself—what it’s good for and what it isn’t, how it serves us and how it betrays us.
The last week has been not so much a case of national déjà vu as a Philip K. Dickian time-slip where the past bleeds into the present and transforms it. Syria is potentially the frankenstein of foreign-policy crises, made up of the parts of dead blunders: Vietnam, where we learned that firepower won’t overcome the unquantifiables that make for a quagmire; Iraq, where we learned that intelligence may be faulty or manipulated; Libya, where we learned both the combat possibilities and limitations of no-fly zones; Afghanistan, where a quarter-century ago we armed freedom-fighters who became accomplices in the murder of 3,000 citizens on American soil; Kosovo and Rwanda, where we ignored mass slaughter at the cost of our collective conscience; and Somalia, where we answered the call of conscience to disastrous end. Syria surpasses them all. With a warring population becoming ever more kaleidoscopically sectarian, and an air-defense system as sophisticated as any in the non-Israeli Middle East, it’s an unfolding horror show that morally demands a response from the greatest nation on earth even as we face a void of viable military, political, and diplomatic options. This was true before the looming holocaust that would be wrought by chemical weapons. As the president of the United States noted yesterday in his press conference, Syria was a cataclysm of mind-boggling dimensions before the conversation ever turned to red lines.
In the 21st century, American malevolence comes in twos. Just as people couldn’t begin to grasp what was happening until a plane hit the second of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, the full impact of what took place Monday in Boston didn’t sink in until, 13 seconds after the first explosion, another immediately confirmed the true implications of this particular horror. Tellingly and understandably, the initial response by all of us was to wrestle with the word “terror,” because as much as any word “terror” has become the rorschach of our modern rhetoric, a characterization that transforms the dimensions of an event even as the facts remain the same, when instead we might call what happened merely a “crime.” Was the explosion that took place at the Atlanta Olympics in the summer of 1996 less an act of terror because it came not in twos but ones? For many, long after the political motivations of Timothy McVeigh became evident, the single detonation in Oklahoma City in 1995—even more terrible than the one in Boston—remains a “bombing.”
The current yelling match about guns is distinguished by two truths disconcerting to each side. As loony as the argument sounds after a history of 224 years, the faction that opposes any oversight or management of gun rights is correct about one thing. The Second Amendment doesn’t exist to protect people’s right to hunt. It doesn’t exist to protect people’s right to shoot a thief or intruder. Derived from a similar stipulation in the English Bill of Rights of the 1600s, the Second Amendment exists for the same reason as the rest of the Bill of Rights—to further define the relationship between individual freedom and state power, and in this case to prohibit the state from unilaterally disarming the citizenry.