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Inaugural speeches are known for sweeping rhetoric and big ideas, the president’s goal upon taking office to offer a vision for his term rather than two dozen bullet points on the legislation he wants passed (that’s what the State of the Union is for ... can’t wait).
Such was the case when President Barack Obama launched his second term Monday, touching on themes he hopes to pursue in the next four years. Among the ideas he brushed past were equal pay for women, rights for gay Americans and a “better way to welcome” immigrants.
But at the end of that thread, he indirectly touched on the issue of gun control, and in doing so, said this: “Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia, to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm.”
It is that last part of the phrase that set off alarms like someone breaking into an SUV: “... always safe from harm.”
Not sometimes or usually safe from harm. Always.
It brings to mind so many questions, not the least of which is: How in the world do you do that?
Let’s first consider the rhetorical absolutism of that statement before we look deeper at its possible intent. It is, of course, lunacy to think that a president, a government or even parents can keep their children “always safe from harm.” It surely is our goal, but he didn’t phrase it that way. He said “our journey is not complete” until this is accomplished. Making it a journey that never ends.
And when this is applied to gun control, we repeat what many have echoed: While some restraints on firearms are reasonable, many already in place, there is no way to guarantee a tragedy like the one in Newtown, Conn., will never occur again.
It’s possible that better efforts to keep weapons away from violent, insane people can prevent some massacres. We’ll never know, of course, since there’s no way to measure crimes not committed. Remember, laws are intended to punish those who break them and, it is hoped, serve as a deterrent. But those who choose to break them do so knowingly, so laws against criminal or violent behavior can’t keep such acts from happening.
Most gun-control advocates concede this point by saying if we can stop one shooting, it’s worth it. But the president didn’t say that; he took it up several more notches with “... always safe from harm.” Not just here and there; all the time.
What message does that send our children? We raise them hoping they’ll feel secure, but also with a realistic sense that the world is a dangerous place and they must stay wary. That’s why we tell them not to talk to strangers, to look both ways before crossing the street, to wear helmets and life jackets and fasten their safety belts. Yet if they are certain the government will “always” keep them safe, will they still take ownership of their own safety and well-being?
Perhaps the subliminal message the president was sending was that a new day has arrived when the federal government will work to make all bad things go away. That starts with guns, apparently, but certainly can’t end there, since children also can be harmed by knives, bats, balls, bicycles, automobiles, airplanes, their own parents and random diseases.
Is the president promising to heavily regulate all of those dangerous items as well? If so, say goodbye to everything childhood holds dear: youth sports, tree climbing, bike-riding and any activity that might lead to harm. Freedom brings risks, which is why the risks usually are worth taking for us to remain free.
Surely Obama isn’t saying that the only things standing between our innocent youth and a life of carefree refuge are assault weapons. Any reliable source will show that more young lives are ended by everyday causes other than a crazy person on a shooting rampage. As horrible as such episodes are, and as much as we want to prevent them, they are, fortunately, quite rare.
And yet his focus is on eradicating that one uncommon danger in a world full of them, and in doing so guarantee that our children will “always” be safe.
This president doesn’t throw phrases around by accident. Someone meant to send a clear message of some kind. So if it is in outer space when it comes to being realistic, what did he mean to convey?
Could it be that as long as the government is on the job, we should feel more secure? That the threats that lurk around the corner can be whisked away through smart legislation and his keen-eyed enforcement? And we should trust him exclusively to make those decisions for us?
Maybe we’re reading too much into it. But rest assured, there is no “always” when it comes to our security. We learned that on Sept. 11, 2001, and many times since. Whatever laws or safeguards we may have to protect us, it’s up to us as individuals to make the right decisions for the well-being of ourselves and families.
As part of that, we should continue to teach our children that their own resourcefulness, intelligence and wise choices are the best protections against life’s dangers, not the actions of men and women in suits making speeches.