Updated at 4:27 p.m. ET
Two American presidents came together to mourn what happened in Dallas last week.
President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush appeared at a memorial service Tuesday for the five officers shot and killed while protecting demonstrators at a city protest. Obama’s remarks were the most effusive he’s given in this past, violent week. Just days ago, Obama addressed the nation about the shooting deaths of two black men by police officers. He was overseas at the NATO Summit when the shooting began in Dallas, and cut his visit to Europe short to prepare for Tuesday’s services.
In his remarks, delivered at the end of the ceremony, Obama said Americans’ “entire way of life … depends on the rule of law,” and that the officers killed last week “were upholding the constitutional rights of this country.” Even though some protesters were critical of police, “these men and this department did their jobs like the professionals that they were.” The officers honored Tuesday are Lorne Ahrens, Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, and Michael Smith.
The New York Times reported that Obama had “hop[ed] to find words that would not only console the officers’ grief-stricken families but also reassure a nation fearful that racial divisions are worsening.” His eulogizing role isn’t anything new. As George Condon wrote in National Journal two years ago—before Obama sang “Amazing Grace” at the funeral of Reverend Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, before he honored victims of the Navy Yard shooting in Washington, D.C.—the president’s public appearances in times of public sorrow are a “routine all too familiar” to Obama:
[His] time in office has been marked by an unusual number of deadly natural disasters and far too many funerals and memorial services after several mass shootings and one terrorist bombing. Starting with his trip to Beckley, West Virginia, April 25, 2010, to deliver the eulogy for 29 miners killed in a coal mine explosion, the president has made such somber treks far more often than he would like. He has viewed storm damage in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey and New York. He has gone to communities shaken by gun violence in Arizona, Texas, Colorado and Connecticut. And, most recently, he has prayed with the victims and survivors of the bomb attack in Massachusetts and industrial explosion in Texas. …
[I]n all cases, whether the deaths and destruction result from acts of God or the misdeeds of man, the nation expects its president to provide comfort and solace and to serve as the mourner-in-chief. They also hope that his words will somehow help them make sense of the event that has so disrupted their lives.
On Tuesday, Obama acknowledged his fellow citizens’ pain. “I know that Americans are struggling right now with what we've witnessed over the past week,” Obama said. “All of it’s left us wounded and angry and hurt. [That] the deepest fault lines of our democracy have suddenly been exposed, perhaps even widened.” Americans wonder if racial divides will be fixed, Obama said, as people “retreat to their respective corners” and as lines are drawn. “It's hard not to think sometimes that the center won't hold, and that things might get worse. I understand. I understand how Americans are feeling. But, Dallas, I'm here to say we must reject such despair. I'm here to insist that we are not as divided as we seem.”
In a poignant speech, Bush, who makes his home in the Dallas area, similarly described Americans’ worries, and called for unity. “At times, it seems like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together. Argument turns too easily into animosity. Disagreement escalates too quickly into dehumanization. Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions,” Bush said. But he has hope. “At our best, we practice empathy, imagining ourselves in the lives and circumstances of others. This is the bridge across our nation's deepest divisions. And it is not merely a matter of tolerance, but of learning from the struggles and stories of our fellow citizens and finding our better selves in the process.”
Earlier Tuesday, as he traveled to mark one tragedy, the president remembered others, calling the families of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile—the two men killed by police last week in Louisiana and Minnesota, respectively—from aboard Air Force One. Lawmakers joined him on the plane: Texas Representatives Eddie Bernice Johnson and Marc Veasey, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill; Texas Senator John Cornyn; and Bush and First Lady Laura Bush attended the ceremony as well.
Obama praised Dallas’s police department while describing not only how officers handled the recent shootings, but also their approach to law enforcement—the department is a national model for police reform. Still, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings said earlier in the day that city officials had more work to do: “This is our chance to lead and build a new model for a community, for a city, for our country,” he said in his opening remarks.
Obama suggested officers nationwide are overburdened by public underinvestment in some of the communities they serve, echoing Dallas Police Chief David Brown’s own concerns. But Obama spoke frankly of the discrimination, mistreatment, and stressors that African Americans, specifically, face in their interactions with law enforcement. And he asked his fellow citizens to understand those pushing for change. “We cannot simply turn away and dismiss those in peaceful protest as troublemakers or paranoid. You can't simply dismiss it as a symptom of political correctness or reverse racism,” Obama said. “To have your experience denied like that, dismissed by those in authority, dismissed perhaps even by your white friends and co-workers and fellow church members, again and again and again? It hurts.” Obama called for Americans to confront these divisions head-on and with an “open heart,” working toward reconciliation between law enforcement and the citizens they swear to protect.
“I believe our sorrow can make us a better country. I believe our righteous anger can be transformed into more justice and more peace. Weeping may endure for a night but I'm convinced joy comes in the morning,” Obama said. “We cannot match the sacrifices made by officers Zamarripa and Ahrens, Krol, Smith, and Thompson, but surely we can try to match their sense of service. We cannot match their courage, but we can strive to match their devotion.”