As Obama consoles Boston, a shift from prior gun tragedies

  • President Obama makes a statement in the White House briefing room about the bombings that took place at the Boston Marathon April 15, 2013 in Washington, D.C. Win McNamee/Getty Images

    Americans as a people "refuse to be terrorized," President Obama assured Tuesday, one day after twin bombs at the Boston Marathon left three of them dead and more than 100 others seriously wounded. On Thursday morning he spoke in Boston at an interfaith vigil honoring the victims of an attack being termed an act of "terror" but about which otherwise little is yet understood.

    "Consoler-in-chief": It's a role the president is familiar with, having been cast in it multiple times over the course of his first four years in the White House.

    There was the mass shooting in 2009 at the Fort Hood, Texas army base, which killed 13 and injured 30. The 2011 assassination attempt of then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, killed six and hurt 13 others. Last summer, a gunman sprayed a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., with bullets, leaving 12 dead and almost 60 others gravely wounded. And then there was Newtown, Conn. - a massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School that killed 20 first-graders and six of their educators - hurtling into the spotlight the most potentially roiling debate over gun control in decades.

    Anew in his second term, Mr. Obama stood Thursday on a stage set that begged that tried-and-true consoler costume, but offered a script yet unknown to him: No defined suspects, no cut-and-dried crime scene, no natural transition to a political fight as catharsis for the victims. The Boston bombings were sheer terrorism.

    He had history as a guide. Following Giffords's shooting in 2011, the New York Times published a piece called "Executive Consolation," outlining moments of despair that have tried presidents "as they try to strike a precise balance of resolve and sympathy."

    On the evening of Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush from the Oval Office vowed to crack down on terrorism; three days later at Ground Zero, wielding a bullhorn, he responded to a worker who cried, "We can't hear you," pledging, "The rest of the world hears you - and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!"

    In 1995, President Bill Clinton invoked scripture from the Bible to soothe a nation unnerved by the Oklahoma City bombing, and urged Americans to "overcome evil with good."

    President Ronald Reagan in 1986, after an entire country had watched the space shuttle Challenger explode with seven astronauts on board, made the case that their work was not in vain: "I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen," he said. "It's all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It's all part of taking a chance and expanding man's horizons. The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave."

    Ahead of the Gipper's '86 address, R.W. Apple Jr. of the New York Times explained the president would have to "identify with the ensuing national grief - lead the mourning, in a sense - but he must also confine it and direct it," else the nation's mood would "evolve into a sense of national despair and futility." Almost 30 years later, Mr. Obama bore the same task.

    With a nod to Bill Iffrig, the 78-year-old marathon runner who was captured on video tumbling to the ground in the blast's rumble, the president's remarks on Thursday read more like a pep rally than a pep talk: "We may be momentarily knocked off our feet, but we'll pick ourselves up. We'll keep going. We will finish the race," he said.

    "That's our strength," Mr. Obama continued, offering both a comforting hand to those shaken by the tragedy as well as a cautioning resolution to the threatening ethereal. "That's why a bomb can't beat us. That's why we don't hunker down. That's why we don't cower in fear - we carry on. We race. We strive. We build and we work and we love and we raise kids to do the same.

    "We come together to celebrate life," he went on. "And to walk our cities, and to cheer for our teams. When the Sox, the Celtics, the Patriots or Bruins are champions again - to the chagrin of New York and Chicago fans - the crowds will gather and watch a parade go to Boyleston Street, and this time next year on the third Monday in April, the world will return to this great American city to run harder than ever, and to cheer even louder than ever for the 118th Boston Marathon."

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