That was a very cautious statement Thursday morning from Barack Obama. It was striking how apolitical it was. True, he talked a bit about gun control, enough to boil the blood of the absolutists. But even there, he certainly soft-pedaled it from the point of view of gun-control advocates: a fairly gentle nudge buried down in the statement about finding ways to “make it a little harder” for people like this couple to wreak this mayhem, “because right now it’s too easy.”
To my ear, he walked back the gun control message a bit from what he’d said Wednesday, the day of the shooting. In that statement, he specifically invoked measures like tougher background checks and “common-sense gun-safety laws,” and he used more aggressively political language, about the United States having “a pattern now of mass shootings in this country that has no parallel anywhere else in the world.”
This is obviously true and ought to be uncontroversial, but it isn’t. And it’s not actually unreasonable to argue that the guy who is president of the whole United States shouldn’t turn a national tragedy into a political debate before the victims have even been identified or their bodies moved from the site, so it was probably appropriate of him to turn it down a notch. Someone gave him decent advice, and he listened.
What he emphasized instead was that this may be a complicated case that doesn’t fit neatly into anybody’s narrative. It could be terrorism-related, he said; but “it is also possible that this was workplace-related.” He said the FBI and other law-enforcement officials are going to have to conduct hundreds of interviews to get to the bottom of this one, and that it may take a while.
That seems true in this case, but one can’t help suspect that investigators have a preliminary, off-the-record sense of what went on here, and if they do they surely told the president of the United States. One piece of non-wild speculation on my part: The fact that the couple was armed to the teeth and had commando jackets at the ready suggests that they didn’t just decide to do this on the spur of the moment. Investigators may have a fear or suspicion about this that has been shared with Obama, which could be why he seemed so careful in his words.
There’s a lot to worry about here, if San Bernardino is indeed some new kind of thing. The media never do nuance particularly well, and least of all in a mass-shooting situation. We have these slots and assumptions that feed the storylines. White guy—boom, probably crazy right-winger, obsessed with black people or Jews or abortionists or some other spawn of Satan. Muslim guy—boom, terrorist, Allahu Akbar.
What if this couple isn’t that? Or what if they are that but something else too, or the husband, as angry employee, was something else too? Obama hinted at something here, when he spoke of the need to investigate his relationships with his superiors. The facts when they emerge might suggest that this one doesn’t fall into one of the regular slots.
Not that it will matter. It’ll be pushed into those slots anyway. Ted Cruz was first out of the gate to do so, but soon enough everyone else will too. And the person who shouts loudest and most hysterically will probably be the one who wins the argument.
That’s how the 24-7 media works. It rewards bombast. There’s a certain ill-defined line of taste that can’t be crossed, but as long as you don’t cross that, you really can’t lose with paranoia and hysteria, especially during a presidential campaign. Cruz knows this. It was of course morally appalling for him to say what he said without evidence, but it’s “smart” politically in that Politico-win-the-morning sense, and in our political culture, that’s what matters. Twitter isn’t helping, by the way, in situations like this.
Back to Obama: He seemed beaten down. Sick of this shit. Remember, he was never angrier than in that press conference after the Senate blocked background checks after Sandy Hook; after we could behold the piled-up corpses of first-graders and still do nothing.
He probably thinks things as a private person that he cannot, as president, say: that it’s a sick society that lets this carnage happen and does nothing about it; that whether this guy was a fanatical Islamist or a run-of-the-mill psycho, or some combination, the fundamental problem here is that he was able to go buy semi-automatic rifles and all that ammo; that when histories are written about the United States of America a thousand years from now, historians will probably consider it a telling fact about our society that it has more guns than people; and that as president, he is not in a position to speak these truths. I’d be beaten down, too.