‘To lose one parent,” wrote Oscar Wilde in The Importance of Being Earnest, “may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”
And so it is with earnestness itself. To dissemble once may be cast as an unfortunate misadventure; the product, perhaps, of ignorance or of confusion or of unexpected complexity. But to dissemble twice in a row suggests the beginning of an unlovely pattern: of incompetence, of anxiety, or — heaven forfend — of downright mendacity. Twice now, in the space of just one month, the Obama administration has reacted to an egregious act of terrorism by pretending to be innocent of the facts. What, one wonders, are the spectators supposed to conclude?
And yet, when asked about the cause, President Obama struck a terminally vague pose. His administration, Obama submitted, could not yet determine “the precise motivations of the killer,” and would therefore refrain from “definitive judgment.”
A similarly contrived myopia obtained in the aftermath of the recent massacre in Dallas. On Friday morning, that city’s chief of police explained that the killer had been “upset about the recent police shootings” and “wanted to kill white people, especially white officers.” “The suspect,” the chief added, “said he was upset about Black Lives Matter. He said he was upset about the recent police shootings. The suspect said he was upset at white people.” Meanwhile, federal agents confirmed that a Facebook page bearing the shooter’s name was authentic, as were the photographs in which he can be seen making a “black power” fist.
From Warsaw, however, President Obama was keen to play coy. “I think,” Obama said, just a touch too calmly, that “it’s very hard to untangle the motives of this shooter. I’ll leave that to psychologists and people who study these kinds of incidents.”
If the president can speak of Charleston without causing a breach in the peace, why can’t he comment honestly elsewhere?
If sedulous detachment were the president’s usual mode, one could mount all sorts of defenses in his favor. Perhaps, one might posit, Obama does not think it wise to comment on the intentions of terrorists, lest his bully pulpit act as a recruitment tool? Perhaps, until such time as investigations are complete, he believes that silence is the most appropriate course? Or perhaps he considers that mass-murder is an indication of mental illness, and that the claims killers make about their motivations are always a distraction? But — and this is key — sedulous detachment is not the president’s usual mode. On the contrary: When he wants to be, Barack Obama can be as incisive as the best of us. When, in June of last year, a white supremacist killed nine African Americans in a Charleston church, Obama was admirably forthright with his denunciation and his grief. Famously, he sang “Amazing Grace” at the memorial service; pointedly, he took aim at the Confederate battle flag, which still flew a few feet from the South Carolina statehouse; and, in an early public address, he insisted that it was not incumbent upon him “to be constrained about the emotions tragedies like this raise.” “The fact that this took place in a black church,” Obama proposed, “raises questions about a dark part of our history.”
None of these judgments were inappropriate. What happened in Charleston was an abomination of the highest order, and had the nation’s first black president felt unable to express his indignation and his sorrow, something would have been awry. But one can simultaneously acknowledge the power of that moment and be forgiven for wondering why Obama is so selective in his willingness to engage with the truth. If one is to be charitable, one must presume that Obama’s recent reticence was intended to calm rather than to mislead. And yet to be charitable in divining motive is not to be naïve in predicting outcomes, nor is it to refrain from asking why the rules do not apply equally at all times. If the president can speak of Charleston without causing a breach in the peace, why can’t he comment honestly elsewhere?The grand irony, then, is that President Obama had it right in the first instance. After Charleston, his honesty and his sincerity helped to calm things down; after Orlando and Dallas, his obtuseness has served only to put up his critics’ backs. Were we living in an information vacuum, the withholding of crucial details could indeed be profitable for the censor. But, in the age of Twitter, it does nothing more than to diminish trust. When CNN shows a police chief explaining what has happened and then cuts to the president downplaying that explanation, the viewer doesn’t think “that’s complex,” he thinks, “Why is the president ill-informed?” — or, worse, “Why is the president lying?” Likewise, when the federal government does whatever it can to pretend that a man who said “I did it for ISIS” did not in fact do it for ISIS, it doesn’t diminish the resolve of those who would do us harm so much as it inspires them to make themselves clearer next time. There is a role for the White House to play in encouraging tranquility, and a place for the president among those who are tasked with soothing nerves. But honesty remains the best policy — in this year and the next.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is the editor of National Review Online.