“Our government rests in public opinion. Whoever can change public opinion, can change the government. . . .Public opinion, on any subject, always has a ‘central idea,’ from which all its minor thoughts radiate. That ‘central idea’ in our political public opinion. . .has continued to be, ‘the equality of men.’”
Abraham Lincoln, December 16, 1856
This Sunday saw a remarkable gathering of people at the Place de la République in Paris – CNN reports 3.7 million – in the aftermath of two terror attacks where 17 people were murdered at the offices of a satirical newspaper and a synagogue. In spite of the short notice and obvious security concerns, reports note that at least 40 country leaders attended and marched in the rally.
By now it is widely known that President Barack Obama did not attend. Initially, the word from the White House was that security issues were the reason he did not go. By Monday afternoon, the White House indicated that someone other than the U.S. Ambassador to France should have attended and marched in the rally, while at the same time Secretary of State John Kerry described criticism of the President not attending as “quibbling” since the Ambassador and U.S. Embassy staff marched in the procession.
With respect to the Secretary, the point is that the President did not understand the importance of attending himself, while other leaders, particularly from the West, did.
The attacks occurred in a Western Liberal Democracy, and purposefully so. France has been an ally and friend to the U.S. for most of our nation’s existence. Thousands of Americans fought, died for, and are buried in French soil, while the US and France have shared the symbolism of freedom – The Statue of Liberty. Friendship requires public displays of brotherhood and solidarity, for both friends and enemies to see.
Whether one likes it or not, the United States is viewed as the leader for human freedom – the freedom that allows for reasoned and differing opinions about public life. There is no doubt that the President has made private gestures since last week, and both the President and Secretary have appeared on French television in the days after the initial attack. But the attacks should not be seen having been mounted only against the French, but against any nation that allows freedom of speech. It must also be remembered who the enemy is that committed these crimes, and others, and the lies they perpetuate.
Elite political and social leaders have one principle tool to affect society: speech and actions that affect public opinion. A President, by Constitutional design, is limited in his power to act without consent from the other two branches of the government, but he has the “bully pulpit, ” a significant advantagesin trying to shape opinion, both domestic and foreign. One only need think of John F. Kennedy’s June 1963 speech in West Germany, where he made it clear to the Communist enemies of the West, that America will stand with its fellow lovers of freedom, more, that by the symbolic – “Ich bin ein Berliner” – there is a larger community that stands for human freedom.
The response by the people of France to heinous attack in Paris presents an opportunity to address the lethal and perpetual dangers to the basic and natural ideas of self-government, freedom of thought, and practice of faith. Don’t forget that in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Nigeria, Cameron, and Germany hundreds have been killed since December by groups aligned with those responsible for the Paris murders.
We cannot ignore the reality of the terror that is spreading around the world. History is abundant with examples of regimes and cultures that have simply killed those that they disagree with. In spite of its flaws, the US is, as Lincoln well understood, “the last best hope of earth,” and we always need to remind others of the need for freedom and the threats to it.