What was most striking about the President’s speech from the Oval Office – only his third in seven years – was that it “read” but did not “speak”. For despite his fame as an orator, the talk somehow lacked the appeal to a country thirsting for encouragement as well as reassurance. The nuances in the speech – and they were everywhere, whether in a questioning of the Congress’ intent or the attribution of the barbarism of San Bernardino to laws governing weapons – were couched skillfully. But they might well have been lost for many of his listeners who wanted more than anything else, an emotional appeal to match the tragedy which had taken place and the fear that more might be in store.
One had hoped for more. There was a striking and troubling brief photograph of the president during his recent meeting with his national security team at a conference table. After panning over the table, the camera had caught the President slumped in his chair at the head of the table, looking both worried and exhausted. For a staff which spends so much time carefully shepherding the imagine of the chief executive, it was a naked and revealing glimpse. It seemed to indicate that the events at San Bernardino had finally broken through the wall of self assurance and unreality which has insisted for months – more than a year now – that the U.S. had and was pursuing a strategy for victory in meeting the Mideast terrorists. Instead, the country had been presented with a dramatic instance in which the terrorists were willing and capable of launching a bloody attack. That it was an attack on a commonplace event in a relatively “ordinary” city in our country had made it all the more dramatic and threatening.
There was little in the speech, except its presentation from the Oval Office after a significant relative silence that indicated the White House has yet understood the magnitude of the threat to the country from Mideast terrorism. The President trifled with the truth when he insisted there was no evidence thus far of ties to the international conspiracy in the event at San Bernardino. Even before the evidence which the FBI and CIA have accumulated and for good reason may not want to dispense, we already know that the perpetrators of this barbarism had allegiances and some connection beyond their own capabilities. Where would the considerable financing necessary for the vast array of weaponry have come from? Or the instruction in how to use these weapons and make bombs? Certainly not from the commonplaces of their workplace or the relatively modest resources the couple had from their employment.
Nor was the long harangue about the need to reinforce our arms control laws – whatever the argument for them – relevant. There were no illicit weapons purchases connected with the events at San Bernardino. The fact is that in this instance as in most of the earlier episodes of terrorism, the perpetrators have had all the qualifications necessary to acquire the weapons. Whether the individual, reportedly a friend of the couple, who purchased the long rifles used in the affray did so remains to be revealed, but it seems unlikely at the moment. This horror had little if anything to do with the ability of individuals in our society to purchase guns and the President’s emphasis in this speech on that aspect was irrelevant and misplaced.
But, leaving all these arguments aside, the most important aspect of the President’s speech was its coldness, its somehow lack of a heartfelt rendering. Honed and manicured, the language and the presentation were not the answer to the country’s emotional need at the moment. Nor do we yet know, given all the rationalizations about the campaign against Daesh that he included, whether the San Bernardino massacre is as it must be considered a new turn in attacks on the homeland that must be answered by more than the campaign thus far in the Mideast.