It's been said that Democrats have a harder time articulating their values than Republicans do. The Obama Administration's response to the Trayvon Martin killing is, I think, an excellent example of a characteristically gray Democratic response. Obama has, as yet, said nothing. His press secretary said:
“We here in the White House are aware of the incident, and we understand that the local FBI office has been in contact with the local authorities and is monitoring the situation. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Trayvon Martin’s family, but obviously we’re not going to wade into a local law enforcement matter. I would refer you to the Justice Department and to local law enforcement at this point.”
Now, imagine the national discussion if a president made the following statement:
My fellow Americans, I am speaking to you tonight about a national tragedy that affects every man, woman, and child in our beloved nation. It is the tragedy of fear. It is the tragedy of the price America pays for fear, in hardened hearts and in pointless violence.
Trayvon Martin has paid for our nation’s fear with his life. Another of our fellow citizens, George Zimmerman, who could so easily have been Trayvon’s friend, will now live the rest of his days knowing he ended another's life.
Trayvon’s killing calls America, once again, to examine race issues. It is right that America should conduct this examination. But I am not talking about race tonight.
This incident will also energize debate about gun rights and gun control. But I will not talk about guns tonight, because it is not the Second Amendment that is causing Americans to arm themselves against one another. It is fear.
There have been times when Americans were justified in fearing each other. As European-Americans spread across our continent, our forebears attacked each other brutally and spent many nights in fear. As America grappled with the scourge of slavery, our forebears lived in fear of their owners, in fear of slave rebellion, and finally in fear of their own brothers as the Civil War pitted Americans against each other.
Fear caused some to kill and some to be killed. But this great nation was not built by victims and killers. This nation was built instead by the Americans who had the courage to talk to one another, to reach out, to work together, to risk getting to know strangers. Fear is not our heritage. Courage is.
Citizens in America today enjoy levels of peace and safety that are among the best in the world. The rate of violent crime in America has dropped by almost 20 percent in the past decade. Crimes against property in America have dropped by 25 percent during that same time. Americans own more things, more property, than ever before and the odds that any of us will be the victim of theft have not been this low since 1972.
We do not need fear one another. Caution is always wise, and it depends upon information and upon calm control, not fear. We can take action against crime in hundreds of cooperative, preventive, and civil ways without arming ourselves against one another.
I am asking all Americans to join me, at some time during the next week, to spend an hour in contemplation about fear in America, about the part each of us plays in spreading fear, and the part each of us could play in calming it.
When a voice on the television or radio tries to alarm us, we need to ask whether that voice is hoping to raise ratings or revenue with shocking stories. When our neighbor or friend tells us of a rumor of violence, do we pass the story along, possibly embellishing it, or do we check the facts?
And when we encounter someone trying to rouse fear, can we find the courage to speak out and say, “Enough?” Can we find the courage to stand up against fear with as much energy and conviction as those who promote fear?
And when we are aware of a real risk to our safety, do we respond with immediate thoughts of force and violence, or do we respond by working with each other to seek out peaceful, civil ways to diminish the threat? America is rich in service and citizenship. Hundreds of neighborhood groups around America operate every day in courageously peaceful ways, assisting police, helping newcomers and visitors find their way through their communities instead of attacking them. These citizens have the courage to talk, to communicate, to collaborate, and to work with their neighbors to use nonviolent methods of resolving disputes and fears.
I am only your president. I do not hold any levers that calibrate fear or courage in American hearts. Some will surely find reasons to criticize me for what I have said tonight, but I cannot let fear of criticism keep me from speaking to you about this. I am sworn to insure domestic tranquility and promote the general welfare. And in that capacity, I am asking you to help. I am asking every American to stand with courage against fear.
Note: I've made a few edits in this post following some of the comments to improve the clarity of its intended focus, which was not particularly to criticize Obama, but to explore the possibilities of progressive moral leadership.