The thread between us

Barack Obama’s speech in Tucson, Arizona, last week, at the memorial service for the victims of a deranged gunman, was, for many, the finest moment of his presidency. A powerful orator, an intellectual in every sense of the word, Obama carried out with great success one of his most basic duties – being the leader of a country in mourning, of a country that still hopes. The American people, who appear to have awoken to the danger of the divisive passions that their political debate stirs, expected their president to unite the nation, to express the depth of pain for the dead and injured, and to show the way to a better future. In recent years we saw George W. Bush assume this role amid the ruins of the World Trade Center. Before him, Bill Clinton united a shocked nation at Oklahoma City and Ronald Reagan, with moving lyricism, honored the dead of the Challenger space shuttle. Every president has his own national tragedy to confront. The US president has to personify a complicated office – he is head of state, religious leader and First Citizen all at once. Moments of national mourning bring the whole nation before the president, who must meet the challenge of the moment and take his place in history. In the face of horror – whether caused by enemies or an accident – the president must sing his society’s praises and point out its enemies, he must honor the victims and give strength to survivors. He must reaffirm his society’s values and commit himself to protect them and strengthen them. From the most primitive societies onwards, this is an opportunity to strengthen the bond between the leader and the group; but it is also the moment when each member is keenly aware of the bonds between himself and the leader, between himself and his neighbor, between himself and unknown compatriots at the other end of the country. A thin thread stretches from one citizen to the other, to the leader and back again. That is why Obama spoke in such a personal way about each of the victims. He gave each citizen the opportunity to think: «Each one is like me, I am like each of them. What happened to them concerns me.» That is why the president shared his personal thoughts on very private issues, such as loss, mourning, heroism. His aim was to call for greater civility in public discourse, to bridge the chasm in public life. «At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized – at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who happen to think differently than we do – it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds,» the president said. «We recognize our own mortality, and we are reminded that in the fleeting time we have on this Earth, what matters is not wealth, or status, or power, or fame – but rather, how well we have loved and what small part we have played in making the lives of other people better.» The superpower’s leader did not shrink from placing love at the very center of his speech, understanding that it is this abstract concept which ties individuals into a community. However cynical one may be, it is indisputable that even Obama’s harshest rightwing critics saluted his speech. However long these words retain their power, with them the American president fulfilled his mission of comforting the injured and survivors of the dead, of inspiring his divided nation and of reminding Americans that more things unite them than divide them. He reaffirmed the social bond. Apart from our economic crisis, in Greece we have fewer social problems than the United States – especially with regard to armed violence. But while America can still be frightened by the passion and populism of an often absurd political conflict, we appear to have lost all sense of being part of a whole. We have disintegrated into countless groups – on the basis of party, profession and any personal interest – in an endless, furious clash. We are witnesses to the defeat of leaders who do not inspire and a society which places personal interest above the common good. As if we still have the luxury of living as each sees fit, pursuing only benefits, evading obligations.