Obama Talks Afghanistan Loss of Life at NATO Summit But Silent on Chicago Carnage

The president warned about loss of life in Afghanistan at the NATO summit, but he says little about killings at home for fear of offending the gun lobby, says Michael Daly.

Paul Beaty / AP Photo

Twelve year-old Nazia Banks was in his last 90 minutes of life when Air Force One landed at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport on Saturday night.

As President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama were greeted on the tarmac by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his wife, Nazia was on the opposite end of the city, playing with other youngsters outside his family’s two-story brick home on South Brandon Avenue. The president and the mayor stood chatting for a few moments, seeming just as close as when Emanuel served Obama as White House chief of staff. They then boarded the presidential helicopter with their wives and flew to Solider Field on the city’s lakefront. A motorcade waited to take the Obamas to the hotel where they would be staying during the NATO summit.

Just down Lake Shore Drive, Nazia Banks’s father called for the youngster to come in for the night. Nazia was starting toward the cement steps leading up to his front door when two men appeared with handguns and began to fire for reasons that are not yet clear. The boy fell mortally wounded with a bullet in his head, one of 29 people shot in Chicago that weekend. He and six others died, including a 14-year-old girl shot Friday night while riding a bicycle. In the morning, Nazia’s neighbors placed stuffed animals and notes of grief on his front steps, a ritual that had been performed on other blocks—on St. Patrick’s Day after a 6-year-old girl became one of 49 people shot on a weekend, and then the night before Easter, when a 13-year-old boy was shot to death while he sat on his stoop.

Obama took a 20-minute drive up Lake Michigan, meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The summit is another step toward winding down the war in Afghanistan. “The loss of life continues in Afghanistan, and there will be hard days ahead,” Obama declared.

The president of the United States made that remark just uptown of where “loss of life” occurred in Chicago—right here in America. But while Obama is able to talk forcefully about unnecessary deaths a world away, he too often says nothing about the carnage occurring daily in U.S. cities, where gun-wielding assailants kill their fellow citizens in an epidemic that few politicians—including the president—appear willing to confront.

Michelle Obama was taking spouses of other NATO leaders to visit the Gary Corner Youth Center on the South Side. The first lady recalled aloud being one of the truly tough kids while growing up on the South Side; one of the kids who wielded not a gun, but a pencil.

“I decided to just focus, to push the haters out, to kick the doubters out of my head,” she said. “And instead, what I did was, I worked really hard. I focused all my energy on working hard. I spent hours every day trying to get my homework done, wrestling with those math problems, writing and rewriting those papers over and over again.

“We don't like it, but that's part of the process. Studying, getting up early in the morning to study, because we lived in such a little-bitty apartment that it was hard to concentrate at night when everybody was awake, so often I woke up at 4:30, 5 in the morning, just to study in quiet. And eventually, I was accepted to Princeton University, and I went on to Harvard Law School.”

The audience erupted in applause. The first lady continued: “And what I want you all to know is that with every acceptance letter I received, I realized that it didn't matter where I was from, didn't matter how much money my family had. What mattered was how deeply I was willing to believe in myself. Do you realize that? It was all here. What mattered was how hard I was willing to work.”

Her words were pure and practical wisdom that could have served as a guide to greatness for Nazia Banks, had he not been shot to death the night before by punks who wielded not pencils, but guns.

Same with Alejandro Jamie, the 14-year-old shot to death Friday night. The Chicago Tribune reported that Alejandro wanted to become a chef when he grew up—not for rich people in some fancy restaurant but for other kids, promoting healthful eating such as the first lady has been championing.

The families of both Nazia and Alejandro will be getting calls from Chicago Fire Capt. Annette Holt, whose 16-year-old son, Blair, was shot to death in 2007 as he used his body to shield a teenage girl from a wild spray of gunfire on a city bus. Annette Holt and her son’s father, police officer Ronald Holt, have founded an organization called Purpose Over Pain that reaches out to others who have lost a child to violence. She sees each murdered child as more reason for the Obama administration to ignore the political cost and be as proactive against gun violence as it has been against obesity.

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“They’re so worried about kids eating healthy,” Holt said Monday. “They ought to worry about kids living. They're not going to be able to eat healthy if they aren’t living.”

She went silent for a moment on hearing that the murdered Alejandro Jamie had wanted to teach kids to eat well. She then said that if President Obama can risk coming out for gay marriage, he also can come out forcefully against illegal guns.

“We need him to say something,” she told The Daily Beast.

When Obama named Rahm Emanuel his White House chief of staff, some pro-gun extremists noted Emanuel’s “F” rating from the NRA and announced that the appointment was part of a conspiracy to deprive citizens of their lawful guns.

But if there were any conspiracy, it appeared to be one of silence in which the Obama administration generally refrained from speaking out about gun violence for fear of the political consequences. The prevailing rationale held that the president would not be able to do much about the proliferation of guns anyway given the power of the gun lobby. Kids would keep getting killed and the president would only succeed in further hampering his effort to reason with the right while also hurting his chances for a second term. And, if the Republicans took the White House, guns would almost certainly become even easier to obtain. Even more kids would be killed and the living ones would not have an example such as Michelle Obama to show them the right way for truly tough kids.

Or so the pragmatists say. Emanuel has gone back to earning his “F” from the NRA since he became mayor, but Obama has said little about gun violence—even as as many as 58 people are being shot in a single weekend in his hometown and more and more children join the body count.

Obama may have become bold enough to tell a TV reporter that of late he’s in favor of same-sex marriage, but he is not so bold as to travel down to Nazia Banks’s stoop, add a condolence note of his own to the shrine, and say we have to strive to end the shooting not just in Kabul but also in Chicago.

Back up at the NATO summit, police who could have been on patrol and making gun collars were deployed against a crowd of protesters that included peace activists and self-appointed representatives of the 99 percent.

“Whose streets? Our streets!” went one popular chant.

The demonstrators did not seem to be speaking of streets such as those where Nazia Banks and Alejandro Jamie died—streets that too are owned by the people with guns. Had they found themselves on those streets, the protesters would have been less likely to clash with the police than to run to them for help.

Rather than protest a war that is on its way to ending anyway, those who were truly interested in justice and peace would have done much better to have marched on places such as Chuck’s Gun Store, just outside the city limits. Police say that in the last 10 years this small, redbrick shop has sold more than 3,500 guns that were recovered in crimes—including three used to kill police officers.

One person who has protested at the gun shop is Father Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina’s Roman Catholic Church in a tough part of Chicago. He was arrested in 2007, along with Jesse Jackson, for blocking the doorway to the gun shop.

In the window of his St. Sabina office, Pfleger now keeps a sign reading, “Turn in Guns Anytime With No Questions Asked,” that alone puts him ahead of the White House in terms of getting guns off the street.

“I just got one,” he told The Daily Breast the other day.

He retrieved a black bag from a safe and took out a .38-caliber revolver. “A young person came in; he said, ‘I have to get rid of this and change my life,’” the priest reported. “I have to call the police to come get it.”

On June 15, Pfleger and St. Sabina’s are holding an end-of-school Peace in the Streets march. Annette Holt is sure to be there. All peacemakers are invited to join.