Let’s be blunt. They blew it big-time. Even the White House now admits it was a mistake not to send someone with a “higher profile.” That profile should have belonged to President Barack Obama. If there was ever a place and time that demanded the chief executive of the United States, it was in Paris on Sunday. But President Obama was nowhere to be seen among the millions who clogged the streets of the French capital, nowhere to be seen among the world leaders who came to symbolize a solid front for the ideals of freedom of expression and religious tolerance. The U.K.’s David Cameron was there, Germany’s Angela Merkel was, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu flew in, which was remarkable because the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas was marching just a few feet away from Netanyahu.
French President Francois Hollande was not exaggerating when he exclaimed, “Paris is the capital of the world today.”
In all, more than 40 world leaders showed up to step out in response to the murderous attacks at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and in the kosher market the next day. But not Mr. Obama, the leader of the nation that claims to epitomize the freedoms of religion and expression. Not even U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was there, although Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov joined the massive crowds moving down the Boulevard Voltaire.
Kerry suddenly has decided he could squeeze Paris in later in the week, but at the rally on that Sunday, the United States of America was represented by the U.S. ambassador and assistant secretary of state. Oh, by the way, Attorney General Eric Holder was in the city, preparing for some anti-terrorism meetings, but he didn’t join the walk.
The politicians here have teed off on the administration. The foes are having a field day, friends are cringing. But Kerry was dismissive: “I really think, you know, this is sort of quibbling a bit.” Is it “quibbling” to wonder where this nation visibly stands when the stakes are so high, when the entire world community is under such a threat from deranged extremists.
While Holder didn’t join in, he did manage to appear on the Sunday talk shows with warnings about the possibility of similar attacks in this country, telling “Face the Nation” that, “It’s something that frankly keeps me up at night, worrying about the lone wolf, or a group of people, who decide to get arms on their own, and do what we saw in France.”
Unfortunately, what we didn’t see in France was the presence of a top U.S. leader arm in arm with his counterparts around the world, joining the million-plus in Paris and millions more around the planet who found it imperative that they show a human unity against the inhuman hordes who try to impose their vicious moral enforcement against anyone who dares to deviate.
It’s not just ISIS, not just al-Qaida, but even established countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, where religious dissenters face cruel punishment or even death. And for those who argue that somehow the attacks in Paris against Charlie Hebdo were understandable because the magazine was constantly presenting cartoons that were deeply offensive to Islam — and it must be noted, many religions — that misses the essential point: Do we have liberty if we can’t discuss ideas that are grievous insults? Who decides what constitutes what’s acceptable?
We have an entire American tradition that is based on the belief that we are allowed, with minimal exceptions, to say and draw whatever we want. Or at least that’s what we are constantly proclaiming to the world. But our national leader didn’t demonstrate that by dropping everything to be part of the remarkable outpouring in Paris. All he dropped was the ball.
Many of those who did attend can be accused of only giving lip service to the idea of free expression. But at least they considered the concept important enough to show up to project an image, if nothing else. Our president did not. He certainly should have.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.