On several occasions during the course of his presidency, Barack Obama has said some unhelpful things.
Let us go back to July 2009 when President Obama infamously said that the police department in Cambridge, Massachusetts, had “acted stupidly” in arresting his friend Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. despite stating moments earlier “not having been there and not seeing all the facts.” This did not deter President Obama from suggesting the arrest was racially motivated.
Well, Cambridge Police Sergeant James Crowley stood his ground and Obama found himself on the receiving end of a public backlash. Slightly over a week after injecting himself into a local matter, Obama and Vice President Biden hosted Sgt. Crowley and Professor Gates for a “beer summit,” which largely resolved the matter.
So perhaps President Obama had this episode in mind when he was asked by a reporter about last month’s shooting of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin after introducing Dr. Jim Kim as his nominee for the presidency of the World Bank in the Rose Garden last Friday. Obama began his reply by cautiously stating, “Well, I’m the head of the executive branch, and the Attorney General reports to me so I’ve got to be careful about my statements to make sure that we’re not impairing any investigation that’s taking place right now.” It was a promising start but it did not end that way:
I think all of us have to do some soul searching to figure out how does something like this happen. And that means that examine the laws and the context for what happened, as well as the specifics of the incident.
But my main message is to the parents of Trayvon Martin. If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon. And I think they are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves, and that we’re going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened.
While President Obama refrained from stating that the Sanford Police Department had acted stupidly, the “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon” line stuck. A short time later, GOP presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich lambasted President Obama for taking that line. Gingrich said, “What the president said, in a sense, is disgraceful. It’s not a question of who that young man looked like. Any young American of any ethnic background should be safe, period. We should all be horrified no matter what the ethnic background.” The former House Speaker went on to say, “Trying to turn it into a racial issue is fundamentally wrong. I really find it appalling.”
Indeed, if President Obama did have a son he would not look like Aaron Thomas Nemelka, the 19-year old Private First Class who was gunned down along with twelve other soldiers by Major Nidal Malik Hasan at Fort Hood on November 5, 2009. So do Pfc. Nemelka’s parents have any less right to expect that all of us take what happened at Fort Hood with the seriousness it deserves and get to bottom of it? I ask because the bottom fell out when the Obama Administration made no mention of Hasan or what motivated him to gun down his fellow soldiers in its report on the Fort Hood shootings in January 2010. Apparently, the Fort Hood shootings were nothing more than an act of “workplace violence.” In which case, I guess that makes the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were the biggest acts of workplace violence in American history. But it would miss the point entirely.
In retrospect, no one should have been surprised at the Obama Administration’s foregone conclusions. Even as it became known that Hasan had shouted Allahu Akbar and had business cards in his possession bearing the inscription “Soldier of Allah,” the day after the shooting President Obama said, “I would caution against jumping to conclusions until we have all the facts.” President Obama then proceeded to the real business at hand that day, which was to give an address boasting about a bill he had just signed extending unemployment benefits. There was no time for President Obama call upon the nation to do some “soul searching to figure out how does something like this happen.” The loss of our soldiers at Fort Hood simply didn’t evoke the level of emotion in President Obama that the loss of Trayvon Martin did.
It isn’t to say that one cannot lament the death of a 17-year-old boy with his whole life ahead of him. It also isn’t to say there aren’t questions that must be asked in this case and these questions are currently being asked by both federal and state authorities. But in the event George Zimmerman is charged in connection with Martin’s death, it’s going to be awfully hard to find a jury pool that hasn’t heard Obama say that Martin reminds him of the son he never had and the powerful imagery that conveyed. President Obama has once again fanned the flames of racial tension without knowing for a fact that race is an issue in the first place.
As of now, we don’t know if Zimmerman uttered a racial slur during his 911 call or if race motivated his actions in any way, shape or form. But we do know that Hasan was shouting jihad at the top of his lungs when he murdered Pfc. Nemelka and twelve of his fellow soldiers in cold blood. President Obama’s refusal to acknowledge the truth of what happened at Fort Hood is a grave disservice to Pfc. Nemelka’s family and all the other military families who lost loved ones that day. It is a stain on his presidency and, sadly, it appears another one has begun to take form.