Obama's Speech at the Holocaust Memorial Museum

Yesterday, President Obama spoke at the Holocaust Memorial Museum. News accounts have focused on his announcement of new sanctions against Syria and Iran regarding their use of new technologies to further their repressive aims. The President also announced the establishment of an Atrocities Prevention Board, that will serve senior government officials across many bureaucratic jurisdictions, to alert them to pending challenges and articulate policy responses to horror. All to the good.

The President’s determination not to let the Syrian regime think it can ride out the storm was especially welcome. There are some on the left who have developed such a horror at the prospect of American interventions abroad, they foolishly – and immorally – counsel sitting on the sidelines as Assad slaughters his own people. But, there are a range of policy options that exist between a Bush-style Iraq War and sitting on the sidelines, and perfecting those options and deploying them against evil men like Assad is a moral obligation. I do not subscribe to some of the more fanciful understandings of America’s providential role in the world, of the kind made famous by Rev. Falwell and perfected by Gov. Palin. But, there are situations that in which the U.S. is the indispensable actor on the world stage and Syria is one such situation.

I was also struck by the President’s evident sympathy, in the fullest sense of the word, for the State of Israel. He said:

"Never again" is a challenge to defend the fundamental right of free people and free nations to exist in peace and security -- and that includes the State of Israel. And on my visit to the old Warsaw Ghetto, a woman looked me in the eye, and she wanted to make sure America stood with Israel. She said, "It’s the only Jewish state we have." And I made her a promise in that solemn place. I said I will always be there for Israel.

This linking of the Warsaw ghetto with the suburbs of Tel Aviv is vital for understanding the unique relationship we in the West, and especially in America, have with the Jewish State. The Shoah occurred in the heart of Europe. The killing factories as Auschwitz were not far from the center of Polish national culture in Krakow, and the death camp at Majdanek is limitrophe to the city of Lublin, another bastion of specifically Catholic culture. The State of Israel was made possible by the Aliyahs of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The State of Israel was made a moral necessity by the Shoah. There are varieties of moral stupidity in the world, but the failure to acknowledge the moral authority of Jewish alarm is among the most pernicious. To see the President grasp this fact was, among other things, a tribute to this man’s ability to see past some of the intellectual fallacies and fads that have afflicted so many on the left.

But, what most struck me about the speech was not its mention of these initiatives against Syria, important though they may be, nor his commitment to Israel, important though that is. Towards the end of the speech, the President pulled back from the typical invocation of the words “Never Again” as a kind of magic spell – say the words, and you will have done your part – that has too often characterized American presidents in the face of atrocities. No, the President included this paragraph in his speech:

Even with all the efforts I’ve described today, even with everything that hopefully we have learned, even with the incredible power of museums like this one, even with everything that we do to try to teach our children about our own responsibilities, we know that our work will never be done. There will be conflicts that are not easily resolved. There will be senseless deaths that aren’t prevented. There will be stories of pain and hardship that test our hopes and try our conscience. And in such moments it can be hard to imagine a more just world.

I like Obama best when he is channeling Reinhold Niebuhr. I was always suspicious of the way Obama invoked the words “hope” and “change” during his last campaign, contentless nouns that served the purpose of winning an election but failed to serve the purpose of achieving a political mandate to govern in a certain way. I have had plenty of disagreements with the President’s decisions in office, but the thing I admire most is his evident consideration of the moral consequences that attend the exercise of power, as well as the moral consequences that attend the absence of the exercise of power. I sleep better at night knowing we have a President who utterly lacks the easy confidence of Woodrow Wilson and George W. Bush, different in so many ways but alike in their facile belief that good will prevail. I like the fact that the President understands that it matters not to a man who has been killed whether he is the victim of genocide or the victim of a random murder, but that the fact of genocide matters hugely in distinguishing the character of the crime and the character of the criminal.

When one goes to the Holocaust Memorial Museum – and, it serves both functions, preserving memories and preserving history, which are not the same functions – it is difficult to speak. When, after walking past the catalogue of criminality and worse, it is difficult, even painful, to find words or thoughts that are adequate to what one has seen, even though what one has seen are mere pictures and relics – think of the horror of those survivors who witnessed the real thing! At the end, there is a quiet room of remembrance where one can sit before heading back out into the world, where one can console oneself and gird yourself to return to the quotidian. For most of us, it is necessary to sit in that room for some time, letting our hearts mend, wondering how any human heart could have been so deformed as to have perpetrated such evil. A President has no such luxury as time to mend his heart, and the public nature of the presidency makes a sideshow of his personal reflections. He must speak and act within minutes of seeing the testaments to human depravity that memorial museum contains. Yesterday, the President acquitted himself well, delivering a speech that was sober, humble, and determined to resist evil. In the end, that is the lesson we should all take from the Shoah.

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