President Barack Obama on Tuesday urged tempers to give way to empathy after a spate of deadly -- and racially tinged -- shootings involving white police officers and black men. But he expressed rare doubt about whether that's possible.
In a striking departure from the prescriptions of unity and progress he and other presidents typically deliver in such moments, Obama expressed doubts about whether the country can find a way to remedy relations between many predominantly white police departments and African-American communities, including a 25-year-old black Army veteran targeting white cops in Dallas.
Obama sought to thread a needle during an interfaith service at a Dallas symphony hall for five police officers killed Thursday night after a Black Lives Matter Protest in the city's downtown district.
That peaceful protest was held in reaction to the shooting deaths by police of two black men in Louisiana and Minnesota. The Louisiana killing was caught on video and shared widely on social media. The aftermath of the Minnesota incident was live streamed on Facebook. Obama telephoned the family members of those two men from Air Force One as he flew to the memorial service in Texas.
Obama had criticism and advice for both police departments and African-American communities and activists, words that likely will satisfy and frustrate both sides ahead of a Wednesday White House summit on law enforcement-black community relations .
He expressed admiration at several points for police officers across the country, telling them “your work ... is like no other.” And he applauded African-American protesters who he believes are justified in pushing for changes in rates of blacks arrested and killed by police, as shown in “study after study.”
America runs on the “rule of law,” something that would not be sustainable without police officers, Obama said. But he also said “none of us is entirely innocent” of having and sometimes acting on thoughts of racial bias.
“That includes our police departments,” Obama proclaimed as several white officers sitting behind him in crisp dress uniforms did not join in the applause of some in attendance. He urged police officers and law enforcement leaders to avoid dismissing claims of “mistreatment” by African-Americans.
Obama also criticized the Black Lives Matter and similar movements.
“We know that the vast majority of police officers do the job fairly … and that they are worthy of our respect and not our scorn,” Obama said. “And when anyone … paints all police as biased or bigoted, we undermine those officers we depend on for our safety. And for those who use rhetoric of harm our police … they not only make the jobs of police officers harder, they do a disservice to the very cause of justice that they claim to promote.”
As the president moved through this part of his speech, the white officers seated behind him did applaud. And in doing so, they essentially symbolized the situation facing the country, and the unity and collective pursuit of common ground that Obama and former President George W. Bush both called for on Tuesday.
Obama, who noted he has attended “too many” services following gun-related mass murders, made clear he believes Americans can move beyond yet another moment of tensions between whites and blacks.
“I know Americans are struggle with what happened last week,” he said. “All of it has left us wounded and angry and hurt. This is the deepest fault lines of our democracy has been exposed, perhaps even widened.
“But Dallas , I’m here to say we must reject such despair. I’m here to say we’re not as divided as we may seem,” he said. “I know how far we’ve come against impossible odds. I know we’ll make it because of what I’ve experienced in my own life.”
But in a stunning moment of candor, the country’s first African-American president, who so often has used his own ascendency to the country’s highest office as an example of what’s possible in the United States, seemed to wonder aloud whether this latest moment of racial discontent is somehow different -- and perhaps insurmountable as bullets fly back-and-forth and biases are reinforced by media that did not exist in the past.
“If we cannot talk honestly … with those who look differently … or bring a different perspective, then we will never break this dangerous cycle,” he said. “It’s about forging consensus and fighting cynicism and finding the will to make change.
“Can we do this? Can we find the character as America to open our hearts to each other? Can we see in each other a common humanity and a common dignity and see how our experiences have shaped us?” Obama asked, before answering his own questions with searing honesty: “I don’t know.”
“I confess that sometimes I, too, experience doubt,” the president told a nearly silent hall. “I’ve been to too many of these things. I’ve seen too many families go through this.”
No one — white or black, in uniform or their Sunday best — applauded.
Bush: U.S. not 'held together by blood'
Bush used his remarks to stress that the United States has “never been held together by blood,” and urged national unity amid a spate of police-related shootings that have rekindled racial tensions.
“At times, it seems like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together,” said Bush, who lives in the Dallas area in nearby Crawford.
For those who live in and around the Dallas metroplex, “we have had five deaths in the family,” Bush said, adding the fallen officers’ “courage is our protection and shield.”
The memorial service was held for five police officers who were killed — seven others were wounded — on Thursday evening in Dallas following the Black Lives Matter protest.
For his part, Bush did not shy away from that recent spate of deaths involving police officers, though he did not reference Louisiana and Minnesota.
“Argument turns too quickly into animosity,” Bush said, in what appeared a reference to incidents between between white police officers and black men. “Disagreement escalates too quickly into dehumanization.
“Sometimes we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions,” the former commander in chief said. “And this has strained our bonds of understanding and common purpose.”
Even as the U.S. again finds itself mired in racial tensions, Bush said Americans “have a great advantage.”
“We have never been held together by blood,” he said, but rather by “shared commitments to common ideals.” He urged “empathy” to imagine oneself dealing with the struggles other are facing.
Notably, Bush also used a word — accountable — that some police representatives have scoffed at over the last week, calling it a code word to be overly critical of law enforcement officers.
“At their best, when they’re trained and trusted and accountable, [police] free us from fear,” Bush said.
Cornyn: Fallen officers overcame 'evil'
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn , a Texan, honored the Dallas police officers slain last week, telling a memorial service there that they chose to "overcome evil" with "good."
The Republican senator said the entire country "shares the grief of Dallas," and he thanked the city for "the strength and grace you’ve shown in these trying hours."
Speaking before Obama and Bush, and as Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. , sat behind him alongside them, Cornyn said the city and its fallen police officers were "not ultimately overcome by evil."
"I think they chose to overcome evil," Cornyn said. Many officers did by "running toward the sound of the gunfire." The five officers who were killed did it by "sacrificing their own lives so that others could live," Cornyn said.
Thanks to those five men who sacrificed for others, "the city of Dallas shall overcome the evil from that day."
Sen. Cruz on Air Force One
Cornyn was among a bipartisan group of politicians who attended the service, something the White House portrayed as a sign that, as Obama was to say during his remarks, the country is not as divided as the recent violence and unrest suggests.
[ Fatal Police Shootings Caught on Video ] "At a time when our country is do divided, I think it is important that the country’s leaders are coming together across party lines despite significant political differences to emphasize a shared desire to unify the country," White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters traveling Tuesday on Air Force One.
"At a time when our country is do divided, I think it is important that the country’s leaders are coming together across party lines despite significant political differences to emphasize a shared desire to unify the country," Earnest said.
The bipartisan contingent that flew on the executive jet and then spoke at the service show "our country is not as nearly as divided as it might seem," Earnest said. "Unfortunately, it’s in moments of tragedy that this unity is revealed."
Back in Washington, Speaker Paul D. Ryan has said he’s started conversations with his colleagues about what the House can do to help reduce the tensions.
“Right now what we want to do is have a good conversation where we calm things down and we talk about solutions, about how we can better improve our communities and the relationship between law enforcement and communities,” the Wisconsin Republican said.
Washington Republican Rep. Dave Reichert, chairman of the Republican Policy Committee Law Enforcement Task Force and a former sheriff, said he’s been trying to put together a bipartisan working group to discuss ways to improve relations between law enforcement and the communities they serve.