Five men who know what it means to be president of the United States shared a stage in University Park, Texas. Then the incumbent among them flew to Waco, to mourn 11 first-responders, killed in a fertilizer plant explosion in the small town of West, Texas.
All presidents try to rewrite history to burnish their brief place in it. And in his new presidential library, George W. Bush will have his turn.
Barack Obama’s legacy is still a work in progress, though even sympathetic commentators are seeing him now, in his fifth year, as too slow to act, too cerebral to brawl, and too little respected by his political enemies.
In one role, however, Obama has excelled: “Mourner in Chief” — not one of his constitutional duties but oddly important.
Here in the Upper Midwest (I live in Minnesota), the importance of higher ground is not just metaphorical, as snowmelt-fed flood waters rise to envelope communities. People, quite literally, are forced to higher ground by floods.
It is interesting, too, what happens when that higher ground, the literal higher ground, is sought. Necessarily, there are more people in a smaller area; that’s the nature of it. Diverse groups are forced together. We know these images from the news: the floating cars, and then the displaced people together in a school gym, talking. The power of that second image is that it shows an unexpected, shared space. People have grabbed what they could and fled to this place, often by walking uphill, and now they find themselves together.
When the metaphorical waters rise and destroy what we know or count on, people do the same thing, but that higher ground is a broad mutual faith that encompasses the belief that there is something greater than ourselves, that there must be a reason for these tragedies; we turn to God. Recently, we have seen this happen in Boston and in West, Texas. At the memorial for the victims of the explosion in West, held at Baylor University, President Barack Obama spoke openly about faith.
Last week was on in which what God envisions for our world seemed so very, very far away.
We watched in horror last Monday as two bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. We wept as we heard about the death of an 8-year-old boy, a 23-year-old grad student, a 29-year-old restaurant manager. We shuddered as we thought about the 170 people injured in the bombings, many of them losing feet or legs. We asked why. Why did this happen? How could human beings do this to others?
Tuesday, we learned about poisoned letters being sent to elected officials. Real poison, not just the poisonous words that are so much of our political dialogue. Is this really what God envisioned for us?
Life is difficult. It can knock you down. Sometimes, an entire nation gets knocked down.
First it was Boston. Some mad man (or men) lays waste to one of America’s most hallowed sporting events — the Boston Marathon. Sidewalks that should have been covered with confetti were covered in blood.
Then it was the quintessential small Texas town of West. Populated by hearty Czech immigrants, folks in West worked hard in their shops, bakeries, and fertilizer plant until the plant exploded. A magnitude-2.1 on the Richter scale, witnesses compared it to a nuclear bomb. Dozens are feared dead.
In the nation’s capital, we had the bitter realization that something is broken that will not be easily repaired. A commonsense proposal that emerged from the Newtown, Conn., tragedy, background checks to prevent convicted felons and the seriously mentally ill from purchasing guns online or at gun shows, fell prey to Washington gridlock. None of the Newtown proposals — the ban on assault weapons, limits on the number of bullets a gun can hold or expanded background checks — could garner the 60 votes necessary to overcome a Senate filibuster.
Finally, there were the ricin-laced letters sent to a Republican senator and the president.
A fertilizer plant exploded Wednesday evening, killing at least five and injuring more than 100, according to CNN. From the report:
"Nothing at this point indicates we have had criminal activity, but we are not ruling that out," said Sgt. William Patrick Swanton of the nearby Waco Police Department.
A more immediate question is how high the death toll will rise.
It could be between five and 15, Swanton said. Dr. George Smith, the city's emergency management system director, said it could spike to 60 or 70.
"We have two EMS personnel that are dead for sure, and there may be three firefighters that are dead," Smith said.