In Paris on Sunday, 1.6 million people who cherish free expression marched in support of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and journalists, a Muslim police officer and customers of a kosher market who were slaughtered in terrorist attacks last week.
French President Francois Hollande and more than 40 world leaders, including Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, marched with them under a brilliant blue sky.
And who represented the United States of America, the nation that seeks to define freedom of expression? Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Victoria Nuland and the U.S. ambassador to France, Jane D. Hartley.
Absent were President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, whose job generally includes attending events such as these. No one from the U.S. Cabinet attended. You would think they could at least get the Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx. Secretary of State John F. Kerry? He was in India.
Obama’s response to this grotesque attack on freedom has been limp, to put it mildly. He condemned it, of course, though blandly. He never mentioned satire, or cartooning. Just that we stand with France.
Barely. In reality, we were sitting on our hands.
We get that the Paris attack is just another of the many terrorist attacks in the past year, and not even the most deadly. Just days before two gunmen opened fire in the Charlie Hebdo office, Boko Haram, the group that last year kidnapped 200 schoolgirls, blew through several villages in Nigeria, slaughtering as many as 2,000 people.
But this was France’s 9/11, and the U.S. more than anyone should have understood that showing up counts.
When Obama addressed the United Nations in 2012, he cited Nelson Mandela’s words: “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
Obama noted that “Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of people to express their views, even views that we profoundly disagree with.”
True. And part of the burden of presidential leadership is realizing when to stand with someone and be a symbol for the values that those soldiers fought and died for. In this case, Obama came up short. By not attending this massive demonstration on the streets of Paris, or sending senior U.S. government representatives, the United States looked like a bystander.
To their credit, administration officials realized they goofed. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest acknowledged Monday that the U.S. “should have sent someone with a higher profile” to the march, which was the largest in Paris since 1944, when France was liberated by the Allies after the Normandy Invasion.
Earnest said that security was a concern. Yes, but it was also a concern for the other 40 world leaders who attended, including the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
It’s too late now. The U.S., Earnest said, agrees that it was a “remarkable display of unity by the French people.” It was not, however, a remarkable display of support by the U.S.
Secretary of State Kerry called the criticism “quibbling.” We quibble with that. It is profoundly embarrassing.