Friday, July 19, 2024

Twitter, the blogosphere and conservative media in general are hopping with allegations of hypocrisy by President Barack Obama, comparing what he said about Thursday’s shootings at Fort Hood — that “We don’t know all the answers yet, and I would caution against jumping to conclusions until we have all the facts” — with what he said after the July 16 arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., that “I don’t know all the facts, [but] Cambridge police acted stupidly.”

The controversy arises, as is often the case, from boiling comments down to sound bites without context.

Consider first that Obama’s comments on Gates’ arrest came July 22, six days after the incident; his comments on Fort Hood came Friday, less than 24 hours after the shootings. With Gates’ arrest, there had already been significant analysis of what had happened, with each side weighing in at length, followed by a torrent of analysis; with the Fort Hood shootings, investigators hadn’t even concluded the shooter acted alone until after Obama spoke, and were still looking Saturday into whether others were involved in its planning.

The difference in Obama’s comments are better appreciated with more context. Here he is speaking about the Gates incident, making it clear he knew plenty about the case and with the most-quoted bits in bold to show just how much context has been lost in most commentary and media reports:

Well, I should say at the outset that Skip Gates is a friend, so I may be a little biased here. I don’t know all the facts. What’s been reported, though, is that the guy forgot his keys. He jimmied his way to get into the house. There was a report called into the police station that there might be a burglary taking place. so far so good. Right? I mean, if I was trying to jigger in — well, I guess this is my house now so it probably wouldn’t happen. Let’s say my old house in Chicago. here I’d get shot. But so far so good. They’re reporting, the police are doing what they should. There’s a call. They go investigate what happens. My understanding is at that point Professor Gates is already in his house. The police officer comes in. I’m sure there’s some exchange of words but my understanding is that Professor Gates then shows his I.D. to show that this is his house. And at that point he gets arrested for disorderly conduct, charges which are later dropped. Now, I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts what role race played in that, but I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry. Number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home and, number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. And that’s just a fact.

As you know … when I was in the state legislature in Illinois we worked on a racial profiling bill because there was indisputable evidence that blacks and hispanics were being stopped disproportionately. And that is a sign, an example of how, you know, race remains a factor in this society. That doesn’t lessen the incredible progress that has been made. I am standing here as testimony to the progress that’s been made. And yet, the fact of the matter is that, you know, this still haunts us. And even when there are honest misunderstandings, the fact that blacks and hispanics are picked up more frequently and often time for no cause cast suspicion even when there is good cause, and that’s why I think the more that we’re working with local law enforcement to improve policing techniques so that we’re eliminating potential bias, the safer everybody’s going to be.

And here is he is talking about the Fort Hood shooting, speaking only in the most general terms (and with the knowledge people of color across the country could face retribution for the act of a single, likely insane person) about an ongoing situation:

Good morning.  I want to begin by offering an update on the tragedy that took place yesterday at Fort Hood.

This morning I met with FBI Director Mueller and the relevant agencies to discuss their ongoing investigation into what caused one individual to turn his gun on fellow servicemen and women. We don’t know all the answers yet and I would caution against jumping to conclusions until we have all the facts.

What we do know is that there are families, friends and an entire nation grieving right now for the valiant men and women who came under attack yesterday in one of the worst mass shootings ever to take place on an American military base. So from now until Veterans Day I’ve ordered the flags at the White House and other federal buildings to be flown at half-staff. This is a modest tribute to those who lost their lives even as many were preparing to risk their lives for their country. And it’s also recognition of the men and women who put their lives on the line everyday to protect our safety and uphold our values. We honor their service, we stand in awe of their sacrifice, and we pray for the safety of those who fight and for the families of those who have fallen. And as we continue to learn more about what happened at Fort Hood, this administration will continue to provide you updates in the coming days and weeks.

There is a follow-up controversy in which people such as law professor and blogger Ann Althouse (for the moment the top hit on Google on the topic) say Obama compared Democrats voting in favor of health insurance reform with the soldiers killed at Fort Hood — at least that’s what I’m guessing is offensive. Althouse describes it as follows: “Soldiers make sacrifices for the good of the country, so congressional Democrats should put their concerns about the next election aside for the good of the country.”

That’s inoffensive even if it’s insincere, since it’s exactly what politicians should be doing all the time. What’s stranger is that she links to a New York Daily News story as background, and the Daily News doesn’t quote Obama talking about Fort Hood. It quotes New Jersey Rep. Bob Andrews describing what Obama said — that “Sacrifice is not casting a vote that might lose an election for you; it is the sacrifice that someone makes when they wear the uniform of this country and that unfortunately a number of people made this week” — but the quote doesn’t seem to back up the complaints of Althouse and others, and is also pretty inoffensive on its face.

Obama is quoted in the story, but only as saying of  the health care vote that “I reminded [Congress] that opportunities like this come around maybe once in a generation. This is their moment, this is our moment, to live up to the trust that the American people have placed in us — even when it’s hard; especially when it’s hard. This is our moment to deliver.” That’s it for relevant citations.

These feel like more cases of insubstantial controversy for the sake of controversy.