by Victor Davis Hanson
National Review Online
The atrocity at first seemed undeniable: A white vigilante, with a Germanic name no less, hunted down and then executed a tiny black youth — who, from his published grammar-school photos, seemed about twelve — while he was walking innocently and eating candy in an exclusive gated community in northern Florida. The gunman had used a racial slur, as supposedly heard on a 911 tape, and ignored the dispatcher’s urging him to back off.
The apparently racist, or at least insensitive, white police chief and district attorney then covered up the murder. Understandable outrage followed in the black community, but the killing also brought out the usual demagogues. Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakhan, and the New Black Panther Party all alleged that the shooting death of Trayvon Martin was an indictment of a systematically racist white society. They demanded justice, and the Black Panthers announced a $10,000 bounty on the supposed killer. Even Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter got into the act, dubbing the shooting an “assassination.”
The dispute went national and was soon further sensationalized along racial lines. Others, mostly non–African Americans, countered that the facts were still in dispute and information was incomplete, while noting that just a few days earlier in Chicago ten youths were murdered and at least 40 others shot. Most of those victims and shooters were African Americans, but the carnage did not earn commensurate national attention from black leaders. President Obama himself, who had been silent about the slaughter in his adopted hometown, weighed in on the Martin case and, unfortunately, highlighted the racial undertones — lamenting that the murdered Martin looked just the way his own boy might, had he a son. The latter statement was true but also, of course, true of some of those murdered in Chicago. And given that the black minority currently commits violent crimes against the white majority more frequently than do the nation’s 70 percent whites against its 12 percent blacks, the president’s evocation of race in the Martin case seemed inappropriate to many.
But no crime proves quite as simple as initially reported in our sensationalized 24/7 media. Amid the blaring reports of a racially inspired murder, it turned out that the shooter, George Zimmerman, was actually part Hispanic, with a Latino mother (he was dubbed “white Hispanic” by the media, whereas Barack Obama is not referred to as a “white African-American”), and that he was perhaps not the quick-on-the-draw nut he was caricatured in the press as being. The 911 tape was scratchy, and it was unclear on another recording who said what, or who later was screaming for assistance.
The deceased, Trayvon Martin, was not a pre-teen, but 17 and 6′2″, and the gated community was ethnically mixed and may not have a white majority. True, the supposed vigilante had shot Martin, but he was also a neighborhood-watch designee, assigned to look for supposedly suspicious individuals. And the shooting occurred during some sort of fistfight in which Zimmerman may have been losing. The police, whom most thought should have at least filed manslaughter charges, seemed dumbfounded by a Florida law called “Stand Your Ground,” which could be stretched to mean that almost anyone could use deadly force if he believed that his life was endangered. In sum, what had seemed from media accounts to be a racist first-degree murder, horrifically covered up, on closer examination might have been either second-degree murder, involuntary manslaughter, some sort of criminal negligence, or even simple self-defense — the point being that we will not know the degree of Zimmerman’s guilt, if any, until all the evidence in the case is released to the public. Daily, new information has emerged, and, daily, the previous day’s narrative has changed.
In other words, the president waded into an ongoing investigation, in which the facts of the case remain murky and in dispute. And instead of playing down the racial component of the tragedy in polarized times, he seemed instead deliberately to have emphasized it.
President Obama had entered into another news story just a few weeks earlier. A law student at the Catholic Georgetown University, Sandra Fluke, had complained in testimony before a congressional committee that religious conservatives, in their wish to thwart provisions of Obamacare, would soon ensure that she, and millions of other women at Catholic institutions, would continue not to have access to free contraceptives. She noted that her present contraceptive needs were not covered by Georgetown and had cost her as much as $3,000 a year. Rush Limbaugh immediately jumped in and in crude fashion labeled Fluke a “slut.” He thundered that her sexual life should not be subsidized either by taxpayers or by reluctant Catholic institutions. Outrage followed Limbaugh’s various smears — which went on for at least three days until, under growing pressure, he apologized.
Then President Obama, sensing political advantage, entered the fray. He called Ms. Fluke to voice his support, while telling the nation that Limbaugh’s invectives were not the sort of American environment that he wished his two daughters, Sasha and Malia, to grow up in.
But, again, indecency these days never proves to be quite as simple as what is initially reported by the traditional media. Limbaugh’s regrettable attack on Ms. Fluke was not all that unusual in the world of hardball television and radio. Liberal television host Bill Maher had routinely smeared all sorts of conservative women with even worse epithets, of the sort that could not even be printed in most newspapers — and Maher never apologized. And late-night talk-show host David Letterman earlier had used the crude term “slutty” to demonize Sarah Palin, and also, in cruder fashion still, had suggested that Mrs. Palin’s 14-year-old daughter had had sex in the dugout with a New York Yankee star. Stranger still, the profane and often misogynistic Maher had just given, in a public stunt, an Obama reelection super PAC a $1 million donation, while Letterman was scheduled to have First Lady Michelle Obama on his program. Was the language of Maher and Letterman the sort that the Obama girls should have to endure?
The reactions to the presidential editorializing were predictable. Liberals applauded Obama for his public stand on behalf of feminists, while conservatives countered that he was selective in his outrage and more an opportunistic partisan than an opponent of crude speech aimed at women. The president had succeeded once more in polarizing rather than uniting the nation.
Then there was the tragedy involving Representative Gabrielle Giffords, when a deranged man shot the congresswoman and killed six bystanders. In all, he killed or wounded 19 innocent people. Even though the maniacal shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, had no consistent ideology or discernible political agenda, liberals saw the incident as proof of everything from pernicious white-male tea-party anger to the dangers in Sarah Palin’s use of metaphors such as cross-hairs and targets, and thus leaped in to condemn right-wing bombast. Soon, in response, the president used the occasion to remind the nation of the need for a new civility (“It’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds”) — the subtext being that the popular anguish over his policies had led naturally to a climate that facilitated the Gifford shooting.
But once again, the president found himself in a hole of his own digging. It turned out that while there had been lots of cruel speech, there was no connection between any of it and the Gifford shootings — and certainly no monopoly on it by conservatives. For every bombastic smear on talk radio, there was a commensurate one on MSNBC television. Obama himself later attended a Michigan labor rally in which labor leader and supporter Jimmy Hoffa Jr. bellowed out an implied death threat to conservatives: “President Obama, this is your army. We are ready to march. Let’s take these son-of-a-bitches out and give America back to an America where we belong.” Obama chose to respond to that “take these son-of-a-bitches out” threat to about half the populace with silence.
At the beginning of his presidency, Barack Obama had waded into another contentious incident, the notorious arrest and temporary detention of Professor Henry Louis Gates, the well-known head of African-American Studies at Harvard. At first this also seemed a clear-cut scandal: Gates was arrested as he simply attempted to get into his own house, after finding his door jammed — guilty of nothing other than being black.
Police were called by suspicious neighbors who noted broken glass, and then in supposedly racist fashion the officers typecast and arrested Gates. Or did they?
When the police arrived, they first routinely asked Gates for identification, which trigged from Gates a vocal barrage at the inquiring officer. Words were exchanged; Gates was detained. The president almost immediately suggested that the police had acted “stupidly,” a behavior that supposedly reflected a general national stereotyping of black males. Again, note the pattern: The president seizes on a local issue, editorializes, and ends up sowing more division. His supporters applauded; but opponents pointed out that had Gates instead politely and calmly explained his situation, the fracas could easily have been prevented. And as for stereotyping, did the president mean to suggest that the police should not be aware that black males (about 6 percent of the population) committed a majority of the nation’s murders (52 percent)?
What do all these presidential interventions teach us — other than that there are two sides to every story? First, that race and gender are flashpoints in our culture, as liberals see justice routinely denied to Americans on the basis of their sex and skin color, and conservatives believe these issues are continually trumped up to further divide the country and serve the political interests of a partisan elite.
But a larger lesson should be the president’s, because a disturbing pattern has developed in his editorializing, which is aimed exclusively at those whose policies and language he implies lead to horrific acts like the shooting of African-American teenagers, the smearing of young feminists, the shooting of Democratic congresswomen, or the jailing of African-American professors. Yet in every case, further evidence, more information, and subsequent events suggested that the president had offered either incomplete or misleading commentary to the nation, predicated not on a desire for healing or truth, but on a wish to gain partisan advantage.
With the world in recession, facing energy shortages, and on the brink of war, it is politically unwise for the president of the United States to offer commentary on contentious issues, especially before the facts of such disputes are fully known. To do so at worst can interfere with ongoing investigations, and at best pits the office of the presidency against private individuals. In every case, Barack Obama cannot conclude that his commentary created greater unity rather than further polarization.
When these national controversies arise, the president should take a deep breath, let emotions subside, and simply announce, if he must say anything, “Let’s wait and see,” and then turn his needed attention to ongoing and impending wars, near economic insolvency, and our energy dilemmas.
©2012 Victor Davis Hanson