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In Search Of Leadership: Why We Look To Politicians After Tragedy

President Obama weighed in, once again, on this week's horrific shootings. Depending on the ear of the listener, Obama has either struck the right chord or been off key.
Mandel Ngan
AFP/Getty Images
President Obama weighed in, once again, on this week's horrific shootings. Depending on the ear of the listener, Obama has either struck the right chord or been off key.

When I first heard the news after midnight Thursday that a sniper had killed police officers in Dallas, my first thought was, "Oh, no."

"Oh, no" for the officers and their families, for those trying to peacefully protest recent police shootings. But that "Oh, no" was also for what could come next and a fear for our country, for race relations, for an American people in the midst of a dark presidential campaign that is threatening to tear at the seams of the fabric of our quilted country.

My second thought was about my job. I cover the news. More specifically, I cover politics and think about politics — and try to explain what something means to our politics and elections, policy and legislation.

I thought what I often think after big events: "What does this mean? What can we say about this?" My initial answer was — this isn't about politics. There's nothing to "say" from an analytical standpoint.

And then, as details emerged the next day, watching the pain people felt, the groping for answers, for consolation, for meaning — and watching politicians and officials step up to microphones, I realized there's a reason people immediately seem to go to politics.

They're seeking leadership. They want to turn to the people for whom they voted — and to whom they entrusted public power — for answers and accountability. They want to know how to feel, what to do, where to turn for a measure of hope, for understanding — and to be heard.

It's why after Philando Castile was killed in Minnesota after a traffic stop that people took to the governor's mansion. It's why New York's mayor had to say something after Eric Garner was killed in Staten Island after a confrontation with police. It's why everyone from the mayor and police chief in Ferguson on up to the governor of Missouri and the president of the United States had to weigh in after the death of Michael Brown.

It happens with marches on Washington, with protests outside the White House over war and peace.

Those of us who are parents might sometimes take a moment and wonder aloud, "Who put us in charge?" And then we realize we have to do something, say something and guide. It has to similarly weigh on our leaders — their tone, their decisions can have far-reaching consequences.

President Obama has spoken far too often about tragedy in many forms – from Aurora to Sandy Hook, Fort Hood to Orlando, from Ferguson to Dallas. For the first black president, this particular issue of shootings by white police officers involving African-Americans — which sits right on top of a racial powder keg — has been a delicate balance. Depending on the ear of the listener, Obama has either struck the right chord or been off key.

Friday, he weighed in again. He said he was "horrified" and that he stood "united with the people and the police department in Dallas." He called the shooter's motivations "twisted" and tried to reassure: "There is no possible justification for these types of attacks. Anyone involved in the senseless murders will be held fully accountable. Justice will be done."

House Speaker Paul Ryan said he was "outraged" and said, "An attack on the people who protect us is an attack on all of us." He tried to strike a unifying note, imploring the country not to tear apart: "There will be a temptation for anger to harden our divisions. Let's not let that happen. There is going to be a temptation to let our anger send us further into our corners. Let's not let that happen. A few perpetrators of evil do not represent us. They do not control us. The blame lies with those that committed these vicious acts and no one else."

The leader closest to this incident, Dallas Police Chief David Brown, who is black, grieved and pleaded with the country.

"We are heartbroken," he said. "There are no words to describe the atrocity that occurred to our city. All I know is that this must stop — this divisiveness between our police and our citizens."

It has been a long month. It has been a long election campaign. Friday is exactly four months until Election Day, when this country heads to the polls to pick a new leader. For all the priorities people care about and the direction of the country that Americans decide to choose, what people are also choosing is someone they put their faith in and look to when these terrible events inevitably happen again.

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Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.