DALLAS–President Obama visited Dallas Tuesday to attend an interfaith memorial service honoring the fallen police officers slain in last week’s attack, the deadliest day for law enforcement since September 11.
The president, who was in Warsaw attending his fifth and final NATO Summit when the attacks occurred, cut his Europe trip short by a day to return in time for the service at the invitation of Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings.
Former president George W. Bush and Vice President Biden were in attendance at the service with their wives, alongside mayors and civic leaders from across Texas and surrounding states.
“The soul of our city was pierced when police officers were ambushed in a cowardly attack,” Rawlings said as he opened the service. “The past few days have been some of the darkest in our city’s history.
“We may be sad, but we will not dwell in self-pity. We may weep, but we will never whine.”
President Bush, who resides in Dallas, also offered brief remarks.
“Today the nation grieves, but those of us who love Dallas and call it home have had five deaths in the family. Laura and I see members of law enforcement every day. We count them as our friends. And we know, like for every other American, that their courage is our protection and shield,” he said. “These slain officers were the best among us.”
Bush acknowledged the confusion and hurt felt by not only the families of those slain, but by the larger police community and Dallas area.
“None of us were prepared, or could be prepared, for an ambush by hatred and malice,” he said. “At times, it seems like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together. Argument turns too easily into animosity. Disagreement escalates too quickly into dehumanization.
“Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions.”
The former president also offered words of hope and comfort, emphasizing the need for national unity and common purpose.
“To renew our unity, we only need to remember our values. We have never been held together by blood or background. We are bound by things of the spirit, by shared commitments to common ideals.
“At our best, we honor the image of God we see in one another,” he said. “We do not want the unity of grief, nor do we want the unity of fear. We want the unity of hope, affection and high purpose.”
He also spoke directly to the families of the officers, each of whom was represented in the audience by an empty chair carrying only a folded American flag.
“Your loss is unfair. We cannot explain it. We can stand beside you and share your grief. And we can pray that God will comfort you with a hope deeper than sorrow and stronger than death.”
Obama opened his remarks with Scripture, acknowledging the deep sense of loss in the aftermath of the tragedy. He then focused on each of the slain officers, detailing the specifics of their lives and careers and offering personal comfort to each of the grieving families.
“Like police officers across the country, these men and their families shared a commitment to something larger than themselves,” he said. “They were upholding the constitutional rights of this country.”
He acknowledged that these officers, killed during a protest of the police-related shooting deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, willingly chose to protect those protesting their very vocation.
“I know that Americans are struggling right now with what we’ve witnessed over the past week. First, the shootings in Minnesota and Baton Rouge, the protests. Then the targeting of police by the shooter here, an act not just of demented violence, but of racial hatred,” he said.
“It’s as if the deepest fault lines of our democracy have suddenly been exposed,” he said.
Although the White House announced Monday that Obama would address the deaths of Sterling and Castile at Tuesday’s memorial, the president also used the memorial service as an opportunity to speak to more broad social issues such as education reform, mental health care, and gun control.
“As a society, we choose to under-invest in decent schools. We allow poverty to fester so that entire neighborhoods offer no prospect for gainful employment. We refuse to fund drug treatment and mental health programs,” he said.
“We flood communities with so many guns that it is easier for a teenager to buy a Glock than get his hands on a computer or even a book,” he added.
Obama went on to address the issue of systemic racism in America, stating that although race relations had improved dramatically over the last 50 years, inherent biases still exist and must be acknowledged.
“No institution is entirely immune, and that includes our police departments.”
Obama said numerous studies have shown whites and minorities do not receive equal treatment within the criminal justice system.
“If you’re black, you’re more likely to be pulled over or searched or arrested; more likely to get longer sentences; more likely to get the death penalty for the same crime,” he said. “When all this takes place more than 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, we cannot simply turn away and dismiss those in peaceful protest as troublemakers or paranoid.”
He returned to Scripture to close the service, encouraging Americans to follow the example of the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel.
“That’s what we must pray for, each of us. A new heart. Not a heart of stone, but a heart open to the fears and hopes and challenges of our fellow citizens,” he said. “Our character is not found in isolation. Hope does not arise by putting our fellow man down, it is found by lifting others up.”
The two presidents and their wives clasped hands along the stage with Biden, Rawlings, and Dallas Police Chief David Brown as the interfaith choir sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” to close the service.