Speaking about the unspeakable

What do you say to families who have lost their children in such a horrific way? There is nothing you can say. You can listen. Hold their hand. Let them cry. Care.

But when you’re the leader of their country, you have to say something. You not only have to comfort the families of those affected, but also address the fears of a nation. If it could happen in a quiet community like Newtown, Connecticut, it could happen in your community. In fact, it happened in a shopping mall not too far from our home the day after Sandy Hook. How do you speak about the unspeakable?

As I listened to President Obama’s speech, I couldn’t help but think of President Reagan’s speech after the Challenger disaster.

Although we can’t compare an accident (or at most an act of negligence and mismanagement) with a deliberate act of malice, the sense of national shock and grief is similar. And both were similar in that school children had to witness death in personal and grotesque ways. The challenge for both President Reagan and President Obama is to comfort the families who suffered a public loss and assure the public that something will be done to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.

I saw those messages in both presidents’ speeches. Both of them offered comfort to everyone involved with the tragedies. Both of them called out the victims by name as a way to remind us that these were personal tragedies as well as a national one. I was especially moved by the crying that broke out as President Obama spoke the names of the dead.

Both presidents invoked God. Regardless of how you feel about religion, it offers comfort to many people. In the face of an incomprehensible tragedy, people need some sort of bigger picture — a sense of divine purpose to and comfort of their suffering. I feel both President Reagan and President Obama were right in sharing their faith and offering it as a source of comfort.

I imagine that President Obama’s critics will be quick to accuse him of politicizing the event, and they will sound alarms about increased gun regulation. But President Reagan made political notes as well, although they were more subtle. Both presidents realized that the public wants reassurance. They want to know that the government has been doing the right thing, and although they faltered this time, they will work harder to serve and protect them. At a time when public confidence in their country has been shaken, they want to know that this is only temporary.

I feel both President Reagan and President Obama did that. President Reagan not only assured the country that we were doing the right thing by venturing into space, he also wanted to show that free societies who let their mistakes be shown were better than Communist societies that hid them. President Obama may have been more harsh in assessing our failings as a country, but he also showed that American values of parenthood, community, and personal courage were still powerful and will overcome those failings.

Words can’t completely comfort personal loss or national fears. They also can’t prevent future tragedies from happening. President Reagan’s eloquent words didn’t save Columbia, and no government action will ever prevent broken people from doing horrible things. But we need to know our leaders are aware, concerned, and active. We want assurance that no tragedy, no matter how horrific, will undermine our society. That was what President Reagan and President Obama did at a time when our nation needed it.