Thursday, January 13, 2011

On Day of Mourning, Obama and Palin Show Contrast in Leadership.

The eyes of the world have been focused on Tuscon, Arizona since the tragic shooting of 19 people that left six dead and Congresswoman Gabby Giffords fighting for her life. It is at times like this that our leaders show us what they are made of by the way they respond in a crisis.

Wednesday started out with Sarah Palin defending herself against the use of the now infamous crosshairs map that targeted specific Democrats, including Giffords. The half-term former governor released an eight minute video where she not only refused to accept any responsibility for her use of violent imagery and rhetoric to rally her supporters, but defended it.

Painting herself as this week's biggest victim, Palin posted a video on her FaceBook page where she said, "Especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn."

To be honest, I was not familiar with the term Blood Libel until Palin misused it to describe what she considers to be false accusations against her. What this term actually refers to is a very ancient practice of Christians accusing Jews of killing Christian babies to use their blood to make Matzoh for Passover and other religious ceremonies. The earliest recording account of Blood Libel goes back to the 14th century, but there are accounts throughout premodern history of Jews being accused by Christians of being baby killers. The practice reached a fevered pitch during the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century when the Catholic Church used it as a recruiting tool.

Needless to say, Palin pissed off a lot of Jews yesterday. Mark Pelavin, Associate Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism issued a statement on Wednesday calling on Palin to retract her statement:
“Blood libel" is not just a generic phrase used when someone is falsely accused of something terrible. It has a very specific historical meaning, one which has fed the worst of human nature for centuries and sadly continues to do so today. The charge of "blood libel" refers to the allegation that Jewish rituals incorporated the use of Gentile blood. The "blood libel" stirred hatred and violence against Jews; it contributed to massacres, pogroms and banishments. These are events very different in kind and degree than the criticism to which Gov. Palin is being subjected.
In stark contrast to Palin's self indulgent pity party, President Obama flew to Tuscon yesterday and visited with the real victims and families affected by Saturday's violence, including Gabby Giffords. In his speech Wednesday night at a memorial service the president announced that Giffords had opened her eyes and smiled yesterday for the first time since being shot in the head.

Obama opened his remarks by saying, "I have come here tonight as an American who, like all Americans, kneels to pray with you today and will stand by you tomorrow."

The president also addressed the finger pointing and escalation of political tension over the shootings, saying,

"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 are talking with each other in a way that, that heals, not in a way that wounds.

Obama recognized the heroism of Daniel Hernandez, the 20-year-old, unpaid, gay intern who tended to Giffords during the shooting spree and stayed with her until she arrived at the hospital. In his address to the crowd, Hernandez said, "I must humbly reject the use of the word ‘hero,’ because I am not one. The real heroes are the people who have dedicated their lives, they are the people who we should be honoring". 

In his speech, the president disagreed with Hernandez, saying, "You are a hero." 

Yes, it is during times of crisis that leaders show what they are made of. Who will ever forget mayor Rudy Giuliani walking the devastated, rubble-strewn streets of New York with first responders on 9/11? Even George W. Bush had his moments of leadership when his words called on Americans to come together during that unimaginable tragedy.

Last night President Obama called on Americans to set aside their differences and come together so that the victims and the nation can heal. While his critics tweeted about the pep rally tone of the memorial service, I think the president's address did a lot to refocus the nation's attention on the importance of helping others and rising above partisan politics.

Conversely, Sarah Palin's remarks may signal the end of a long, painful chapter in American history, namely her career. Within a few days, some other story will dominate the headlines and we will have all but forgotten what happened on Saturday. If you remember nothing else from what happened this week, remember that this President put the needs and concerns of average Americans, who have been traumatized in ways that most of us can never imagine, ahead of his own. But at a time when Sarah Palin could have shown real leadership, she was, as usual, focused exclusively on herself. 

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