Great leaders understand the power of symbolic gestures. President Obama made one of the most important and moving gestures of his presidency yesterday when he visited Hiroshima and called for us all to “spread peace and pursue a world without nuclear weapons.”
Then he hugged Shigeaki Mori, a 79-year old historian who was eight years old when the U.S. detonated an atomic bomb there nearly 71 years ago—and the past, present and future wept.
Obama was adamant before his trip to the site where 140,000 died in the nuclear bombing on August 6, 1945 that this would not be an occasion to apologize, but rather to honor and acknowledge. “It’s important to recognize that in the midst of war, leaders make all kinds of decisions, it’s a job of historians to ask questions and examine them,” he said.
Predictably, some conservatives just couldn’t handle it. For example:
For someone "born in Hawaii," you'd think Obama would prefer visiting Pearl Harbor. pic.twitter.com/F3z1UwHVy9
— Ann Coulter (@AnnCoulter) May 27, 2016
Because in Anne Coulter’s alternate universe, visiting Hiroshima survivors is essentially the same as telling Pearl Harbor survivors to suck it; honoring the victims of one is mutually exclusive with honoring the victims of another. (Oh, and why not throw in a dash of good old-fashioned birtherism for good measure?)
John Bolton expands on this delusional worldview in the New York Post, falling back on the trope that Obama is on a “shameful apology tour.”
His penchant for apologizing is central to his legacy. He may not often say “I apologize” explicitly, but his meaning is always clear, especially since he often bends his knee overseas, where he knows the foreign audiences will get his meaning. It is, in fact, Obama’s subtlety that makes his effort to reduce America’s influence in the world so dangerous.
It is beyond the reach of Ambassador Bolton’s intellectual and moral capacity to fathom the shades of gray inherent in any telling of this event. In his mind, either it was completely right or utterly shameful. There is no room, even 70 years later, to contemplate our past actions in a thoughtful and humble way.
And so President Obama’s words must have been confusing to conservatives like Coulter and Bolton. Words like these:
That is why we come to this place. We stand here in the middle of this city and force ourselves to imagine the moment the bomb fell. We force ourselves to feel the dread of children confused by what they see. We listen to a silent cry. We remember all the innocents killed across the arc of that terrible war and the wars that came before and the wars that would follow.
Mere words cannot give voice to such suffering. But we have a shared responsibility to look directly into the eye of history and ask what we must do differently to curb such suffering again.
This simply asks too much of them. Either we are perfect or we are evil incarnate; either we are murderers or saints. Implicit in this dichotomy is the implication that President Obama falls on one side of that spectrum as well—either he is legitimate, decent, American…or he is a illegitimate, criminal, foreign.
Put the text of Obama’s speech in Hiroshima side-by-side with the word vomit of people like Coulter and Bolton and it quickly becomes clear who the adult in the room is.