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The President's Guilt

Pete Souza

Stephen Herreid - published on 06/12/14

Barack Obama's Tumblr generation has no shame.

President Obama was riddled with guilt and shame this week when he participated in a Tumblr Town Hall. Alternating between disbelief, outrage, and remorse, the president struggled to express his “frustration” with the level of gun violence in America.

There is no other developed nation with as little gun-control as ours, he remarked. As a result, gun violence in the US “is becoming the norm. And we take it for granted in ways that, as a parent, are terrifying to me.” He insisted that he is prepared to work “with anybody, including responsible sportsmen and gun owners, to craft some solutions.” But, faced with a Congress that will not submit the nation to gun control, there is little he can do. “And we should be ashamed of that.”

Until we can bring about “a fundamental shift in public opinion,” we can never hope to end gun violence with tighter gun-control. “Until that’s a view that people feel passionately about and are willing to go after folks who don’t vote reflecting those values — until that happens, sadly, not much is going to change.”

Putting aside for a moment the tired question of whether gun-control actually reduces gun-crime (it doesn’t), what strikes me in Obama’s approach to national tragedies is his particular brand of guilt. He has never apologized for his own self-serving fumbles that resulted in deaths. His voice never trembled with shame when he heard of the brutal gun-violence committed in Syria, with guns that he himself provided to “freedom-fighters” who massacred entire neighborhoods of Christian men, women, and children.

When it came to those crimes he felt no pangs of conscience. But when it comes to shootings at American schools, movie theaters, and McDonald’s restaurants, the guilt becomes “America’s” guilt. “The country has to do some soul-searching about this,” he brooded at the Tumblr Town Hall.

A healthy dose of collective shame can be a good thing, but when it replaces a personal sense of responsibility, all accountability can be lost. In fact, only a strong sense of individual agency can provide a true sense of national character, which is necessary for civic virtue and true patriotism.

Obama’s guilt stands in contrast to the age old Christian concepts of sin, guilt, and repentance. According to these concepts, each is accountable for his own faults. As I’ve written elsewhere:

Human behavior, especially if unexamined, can be wicked and harmful, both to evildoers themselves and to their neighbors. It’s good for the Christian individual to examine himself, but it is not a specifically Christian duty; only the basic human one known universally by pagans and Christians alike. It is a uniquely Christian work to insist also that others give an account of themselves, not only for the sake of each individual, but also out of a charitable concern for the threats each individual can pose to the innocence of the community. This concern was behind the “benevolent harshness” with which Saints Augustine and Thomas believed rulers should punish criminals, since “a little leaven corrupts the whole lump.” To paraphrase Socrates, “the unexamined life” should be considered “not worthy of living” among Christians.

Obama is the product of an academic milieu marked by a collectivist mindset. Though trained as a Marxist, he took the passionate, idealistic aims of Communism with a hip and cynical grain of salt. He does not wish to liberate the proletariat so much as pacify it, to slay dragons so much as remove their fangs and invite them to join us in an open-minded dialogue. Like many of the youth who joined him at the Tumblr Town Hall, Obama is prepared to live in a future rife with evil, as long as the wicked aren’t singled out and punished, and the good don’t get uppity.

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