Okay, first of all, I do not think, and no reasonable person should think, that Barack Obama should have attended the Paris march himself. People saying this have no conception of the amount of security involved in moving the leader of the free world around. And sending him out to march along a parade route that the Secret Service doesn't know? Ridiculous. The only time—ever—when a president gets out of his car and walks any distance at all is on inauguration day. (Going to Ray's Hell Burger isn't the same as getting out and walking several blocks.) And the Secret Service knows every one of those buildings along Pennsylvania Avenue cold.
So, no, Obama should not have gone. There's plenty of right-wing trollery today on this point, and let me be clear, it's stupid, and it's just trollery. Obama shouldn't have gone. And ditto Joe Biden, for similar reasons—even an American vice president's security detail probably is on a scale that not even European heads of state get. Either's presence would have turned the march into a security nightmare, and today everyone would be complaining about how big fat America, as usual, big-footed everybody else.
But all that doesn't mean our non-presence at the march was appropriate. Eric Holder was in town and couldn't go? John Kerry, our French-speaking secretary of state—I said secretary of state, for God's sake—couldn't be there? He was in India. Fine. Maybe it was just impossible from the perspective of time zones. But didn't we all know about this march days in advance, and couldn't his schedule have been adjusted? The ambassador, whoever that is, and undersecretary of state Victoria Nuland, hardly a household name, did attend.
Here is what I think should have been done. I think Obama should have directed his entire Cabinet to go. That would have been an appropriate show of solidarity. Security concerns? Please. Except for two or three of them, they could all walk into the Closerie de Lilas and ask for a table and no one would have the slightest idea who they were. That would not have disrupted the event from a security perspective, and it would have sent just the right signal: that Obama knows that his presence would've been chaotic, but he took the event seriously enough to make a dramatic gesture.
And by the way, the error here isn't just the administration's. Why didn't any senators go, or members of the House? Of course, we don't expect Republicans to be able to find Paris on a map or be willing to go anywhere near it (although don't kid yourself—no person in his right mind doesn't like Paris, American conservatives included). But that's a low-expectations argument that shouldn't let them off the hook. And that goes for Democrats, too: Some contingent of American legislators should have been there.
All right. Let's run through the counter-arguments. First, that it's just symbolism and no one will remember two months from now. It may be the case that no one will remember two months from now—at least in America; France is probably another matter. But that's not an argument against doing something. Very few public matters enjoy a long shelf life, but that's not an excuse for not doing the right thing in the moment.
As for symbolism, well, sometimes, it's important. A lot of my fellow liberals wanted Obama to go to Ferguson, Missouri and give a speech. That may have been "just symbolism," but some people seemed to think it mattered. "Ich bin ein Berliner" and "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" were just symbolism, too. But somehow they've lived on, and it was awfully important to West Germans when American presidents uttered those words.
Why is this different? This raises the second counter-argument, which will be raised by liberals. I know that once this is posted my Twitter feed is going to be deluged by fellow liberals having at me for buying into a hate-on-Obama agenda being set by the Daily News and Matt Drudge. For the record, I was mad about this Sunday while I was watching the march, before the Daily News or Drudge said a word.
But more importantly, we can't let our entire reactions to public events boil down to "if X says one thing, my position is the opposite." Yes, Drudge is trolling, and trolling idiotically, because his fire is aimed at Obama for not going, which, as I said at the top of this column, is a ridiculous criticism.
But that doesn't mean that all criticism of the mishandling of this is wrong. This was the largest civilian mobilization in the history of France. It was a huge moment. There is such a thing as solidarity—as standing symbolically in defense of certain ideas.
Here's how to decide where you are on this, forgetting whatever media feeding-frenzy is or is not taking place. Simply ask yourself: Given my own reactions to the murders and my own feelings about where I want my government to stand on these issues, do I as a citizen feel that I was under-represented during the one moment the world chose to make its collective statement on these matters? If not, well, okay then. But for me, yes, as a citizen, I felt horribly under-represented in Paris yesterday. And I bet lots of European—and Middle Eastern—liberals and humanists agree with me. I'm not worried about Matt Drudge's opinion, but I am worried about theirs.