PHILADELPHIA—If you haven’t watched President Obama speak in person, you’re really missing out on something special. He’s truly unbelievable. He can be soulful, funny, and inspiring all in the same address.
He was all those things as I sat and watched him captivate a room of 20,000 people at the Democratic National Convention on Wednesday night.
And yet: Sitting alone between a couple camera crews above the floor of the Wells Fargo Center, watching this truly great orator, I found myself beset by the same conflicting feelings I’ve always had about him.
Obama painted a picture of an America I’m proud of:
“We are not a fragile or frightful people. Our power doesn’t come from some self-declared savior promising that he alone can restore order. We don’t look to be ruled. Our power comes from those immortal declarations first put to paper right here in Philadelphia all those years ago: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that together, We, the People, can form a more perfect union."
And I tell you, when you hear Barack Obama deliver those words, in Philadelphia, it gets to you.
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Mohammed Tuaiman was 13 years old when his father and brother were killed by a CIA drone strike in Yemen in 2011. He later recorded a video in which he said, “A lot of the kids in this area wake up from sleeping because of nightmares from them and some now have mental problems. They turned our area into hell and continuous horror, day and night, we even dream of them in our sleep.”
Months later, in January 2015, Mohammed Tuaiman was himself killed in a CIA drone strike.
When you hear his story, it also gets to you.
Obama transformed America by becoming the nation’s first black president. In a country built by black slaves, it’s an astounding thing. He also transformed America by escalating the drone program, already shadowy and unscrutinized, and making it the focus of the country’s war machine.
It practically ensures there will be a perpetual American “war against terror,” in which millions of children like Mohammed Tuaiman will spend their entire lives with an American predator drone hovering above them, waiting to rain death.
It has been reported that Obama personally oversees the drone kill lists. The man I watched speak at the podium, saying words that stirred me and everyone around me, personally sits with a list of people and decides who gets to live and who gets to die.
How much of that is on him, and how much of that is on us?
“The America I know is full of courage, and optimism, and ingenuity. The America I know is decent and generous.”
And it is! Obama’s own story proves that. In fact, America is the only country where a guy like Obama can rise to the presidency. The United States is, for all its problems, far more willing to absorb immigrants into the fabric of society than, say, Europe. And that’s a beautiful thing. It makes us greater.
“They knew these values were exactly what drew immigrants here, and they believed that the children of those immigrants were just as American as their own, whether they wore a cowboy hat or a yarmulke, a baseball cap or a hijab.”
Inside the Wells Fargo Center, the large and burly security man standing next to me let out a “Hell, yeah!” with a nice fist pump. After the Republican convention, where I saw burly men just like this cheer all manner of hateful and violent things, I was genuinely touched.
A woman named Alicia came to this country without papers. She married another undocumented immigrant and had two daughters, born here. Her husband was deported, never to be seen or heard from again.
A few years later, she herself was deported. Human Rights Watch told the story, and it’s heartbreaking:
“Alicia’s sick daughter wanted lemonade, so they went to the store to buy her daughter’s favorite drink. On the way out, Alicia forgot to turn on her headlights, and was pulled over by the police. She was arrested for not having paid a ticket for driving without insurance. She was handcuffed and taken away while her daughters watched from the back seat, clutching each other and crying. That was the last time Alicia saw her daughters, as shortly thereafter she was deported to Mexico.”
Alicia is one of 2.5 million immigrants deported by Barack Obama. That is more than any other president in history, and it’s not close. So many stories like Alicia’s, so many families torn apart. And how many have been killed after being sent back to countries wracked with drug violence?
Back in the hall, I couldn’t help but think: How much control does one man, no matter how powerful, have over these things? How could a man so admirable, so seemingly strong of moral fiber, so full of empathy, oversee such extreme violence on such a large scale? Is it beyond his control, or is he personally responsible? I genuinely don’t know. The White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, said this just two months ago (emphasis mine):
“But we've made clear how we're going to use law enforcement resources to enhance our border security and to enhance the security of communities across the country. Most importantly, we're going to enforce our laws. And this is something that President Obama is committed to.”
I’ve never understood the mass deportation policy. It’s certainly indefensible on moral grounds, but it doesn’t even make sense politically. At best Obama is simply unable to rein in an out of control federal bureaucracy. At worst we can take his spokesman at his word: It’s something that he is committed to.
“America has never been about what one person says he’ll do for us. It’s always been about what can be achieved by us, together, through the hard, slow, sometimes frustrating, but ultimately enduring work of self-government.”
And he’s right! Hoping our leaders will be good and just is not going to be enough. The cliche that power corrupts is painfully true. We have to always be vigilant, hold them accountable, force them to be better.
But does the patriotism and love of country that Obama’s speech inspired blind us to the abhorrent things our leaders carry out in our name, or does it drive us to work toward building a better a country? I certainly saw a lot of people on Wednesday night who were hopeful and optimistic.
“Hope in the face of difficulty, hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope!”
That has to count for something. Right?
Nando Vila is Vice President of Programming at Fusion and a correspondent for America with Jorge Ramos.