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Obama on Virginia Tech, Violence in Society

Barack Obama

(Editor's Note: Sen. Barack Obama delivered this speech at a rally in Milwaukee, WI on April 16.)

I have to tell you that we have been doing a lot of these community kick off rallies since I announced that I was running for president on back on February 10 and we have been drawing extraordinary crowds and generating enormous energy and typically these are fun and raucous affairs. I come out and I deliver -- if I've got the energy -- a stemwinder and folks are cheering and we've got flags and balloons and music is piped in and usually I think we have Aretha Franklin and Bono or somebody to get everybody fired up. But as the mayor said we didn't think that was appropriate today and I hope that people don't feel a little bit cheated because we didn't think it was appropriate.

As you all know 33 people lost their lives today, this morning. Most of them were of the age of many of the young people in this audience, they were going to class, they had their lives in front of them, their parents were proud of them and looking forward to having them home for summer or visiting them on campus and their lives were cut short in a tragic and random fashion. And so it makes all of hearts ache, particularly those of us who are parents. I have an eight-year-old daughter Maila and a five-year-old daughter Sasha and they describe all that I hold dear in the world and so when I hear stories like this I think from the perspective of a parent and I try to imagine what that must be like - not even just the parents of those that were killed or wounded but a parent who knows their child is there and is uncertain as to whether they were in that class or participated in one of the venues that was struck. And it makes us think about violence in this society.

On the way up I asked my staff to pull a quote, or pull the speech that Robert Kennedy delivered after Dr. King had been assassinated. Riots were taking place all across the country. This is a famous speech that Bobby Kennedy delivered at the City Club in Cleveland. And he said:

'Whenever any American's life is taken by another American unnecessarily - whether it is done in the name of the law or in the defiance of the law, by one man or a gang, in cold blood or in passion, in an attack of violence or in response to violence - whenever we tear at the fabric of the life which another man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children, the whole nation is degraded.'

And he goes on to say:

'Yet we seemingly tolerate a rising level of violence that ignores our common humanity and our claims to civilization alike. We calmly accept newspaper reports of civilian slaughter in far-off lands. We glorify killing on movie and television screens and call it entertainment. We make it easy for men of all shades of sanity to acquire whatever weapons and ammunition they desire.'

That was written in 1968, almost 40 years ago. What's striking obviously is that when you read that passage you have a sense that in a lot of ways we haven't made much progress. That this society is still riven by violence, that we continue to be degraded by murders and crime and all manner of abuse perpetrated on our children and Bobby Kennedy is right: we tolerate it. Obviously what happened today was the act of a madman at some level, and there are gonna be a whole series of explanations or attempts to explain what happened. There is gonna be discussion about how did this person get the firearms that he used. And there are already reports that potentially the semi-automatic weapons he used would have been banned under an assault weapons ban that was allowed to lapse. There'll be discussion about security on college campuses. There will be speculation as to what caused this young man to snap. But I hope that it causes us to reflect a little bit more broadly on the degree to which we do accept violence, in various forms, all the time in our society. We glorify it, we encourage it, we ignore it, and it is heartbreaking and it has to stop.

And [inaudible] ... I know, I know that the mayor, as the mayor of a big city grapples with this everyday and we talking on the way over here and he was indicting the degree to which you'd seen a spike in violent crime here in Milwaukee as we've seen all across the country.

There's also another kind of violence though that we're gonna have to think about. It's not necessarily physical violence but that the violence that we perpetrate on each other in other ways. Last week, the big news, obviously, had to do with Imus and the verbal violence that was directed at young women who were role models for all of us, role models for my daughter. I spend, along with my wife, a lot of time making sure that my two young daughters, who are gorgeous and tall and I hope will get basketball scholarships, that they feel good about who they are and that they understand they can do whatever they can dream might be possible. And for them to be degraded, or to see someone who looks like them degraded, that's a form of violence - it may be quiet, it may not surface to the same level of the tragedy we read about today and we mourn, but it is violence nonethesame.

We [inaudible].... There's the violence of men and women who have worked all their lives and suddenly have the rug pulled out from under 'em because their job has moved to another country. They've lost their job, they've lost their pension benefits, and they've lost their health care and they're having to compete against their teenage children for jobs at the local fast food place paying $7 an hour.

There is the violence of children, whose voices are not heard, in communities that are ignored. Who don't have access to a decent education, who are surrounded by drugs and crime and a lack of hope.

So there's a lot of different forms of violence in our society and so much of it is rooted in our incapacity to recognize ourselves in each other - to not understand that we are all connected that we are all connected, fundamentally, as a people -- that as I said at the convention in 2004 that 'I am my brother's keeper' and 'I am my sister's keeper.' And that those who may not look like me, or talk like me, or worship the same god that I do, are nevertheless worthy of respect and dignity and a sense of common humanity.

And it strikes me that is what hasn't changed as much as it should have over the last forty years, since Bobby Kennedy spoke those words about violence. That we are, at some fundamental level, still in this same belief that somehow we can impose our wills on each other that we can differentiate ourselves and make ourselves feel better than one another because of the accidents of birth, of race, of gender.

We still think about our role in the world, in foreign policy, as if the children in Darfur are somehow less than the children here, and so we tolerate violence there. We base our decisions in terms of sending our young men and young women to war not on the necessity of defending ourselves but the belief that somehow through military force that we can achieve aims that can be achieved through diplomacy, alliances.

So let me just wrap up by saying this is an opportunity that all of us have, today, to reflect. We mourn the families that lost loved ones today, we are thankful to those who helped provide comfort and healing those who are injured and wounded. We pray that parents, family and friends will find strength and comfort in knowing that God is looking down on them, but I also hope this is a day of us reflecting on where we need to go as a nation.

We have so much work to do and part of the reason why things haven't changed over the last 40 years is because we haven't been engaged the way we should. We haven't mobilized, we haven't organized, the challenges that America faces, knowing that a health care system that is broken is causing families to be bankrupt all across America, bankrupting our government. We have an education system, that despite the slogans, is leaving too many children behind.

And the absence of an energy policy that leads us to send $800 million a day to some of the most hostile nations on earth, and the bargain is melting the polar ice caps an changing the climate of the planet. And a war that should have never been authorized and never been waged.

We know that... we know what the challenges are, and we know what the solutions are. We know that we got to match the might of our military with the strength of our diplomacy and the power of our alliances. We know that if we increase fuel efficiency standards on cars we can create a sustainable environment. We know that on health care, if we make sure that children have regular check ups that they're not going to treatable illnesses like asthma. We know that if we invest in early childhood education and we give teachers the pay and respect that they deserve, that we'll see improvements in the classroom.

And the reason that we don't do anything about it is not technical, it's not because we lack the policies, it's because our politics is broken. Because we have given up believing that we can change things and so we turn away. And we look inward and we worry about ourselves. We stop believing that this government is of and by and for the people - we think that's just a bunch of words in a textbook somewhat. And it's that same disengagement that allows us to tolerate violence even though we know we really shouldn't and makes us feel isolated, makes us feel powerless.

What I want us to reflect on today is how can we regain that power, how can we regain a sense that we have some control over this country of ours? How can we restore a sense of decency, how can we protect against a coarsening of the culture? How can we push back against the cynicism and hopelessness and despair? Those are things that, those things won't bring those young people back that were killed today, and maybe nothing could have been done to prevent it.

But what it can do is address that other violence I spoke about, what it can do is make this country live up, a little bit better, to its creed. It can make sure that children who don't have opportunity do have opportunity. That parents that do not have health care do have health care. That those who do not have jobs can get jobs. And that a new spirit washes over this nation, one that is premised on the idea that we have mutual responsibilities towards each other and that we care for each other and that we are stronger when are united than when we're divided.

Somebody said that the way we do that is by electing me, I appreciate you saying that, but let me say this: this campaign - and this I mean - this campaign cannot be about me, it is a vehicle for your hopes, it's a vehicle for your dreams. If you make a decision that change is gonna happen, then change will happen.

I was in Selma, Alabama recently, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the march across the Edmund Pettis bridge and I was with John Lewis, one of my heroes from the civil rights movement, now a congressman. As we marched across, I thought about that day 42 years ago when about 50 people gathered in Brown Chapel: young college students, housekeepers, people without station and without office, but people motivated by courage and conviction that it was time that freedom shine on their lives. And they marched and came up on horses and billy clubs and tear gas, they were confronted with violence and John Lewis was beaten within an inch of his life and they were turned back.

And a day later Dr. King came down and gathered people together and said, 'Don't lose hope. The arch of the moral universe is long and but it bends toward justice," that's what he said. And because they didn't lose hope, thousands of people from across the country came together and those thousands marched and as they came upon the bridge - just as the Red Sea parted so many years before - suddenly, those horses and those billy clubs parted and they marched straight on through, to the capitol and the Voting Rights Act was passed only a few weeks late

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