President Obama and Air Force One touched down today in Alabama, where at least 210 people have been killed and many more seriously injured by dozens of tornados that wrenched trees from their roots and flattened neighborhoods. Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox called the results a “nightmare,” and the president said he had never seen such devastation.
The suddenness, scope and severity of the losses in Alabama are almost unspeakable, which is why the president could be forgiven were he at a loss for words to describe them. He was not. His were spoken with grave concern and included not only the word “devastation,” but the promise to residents that they shall “not be forgotten.”
What the president did seem to be at a loss for was that miraculous sense of seeming “connected”—the magic of human empathy that only a hug can convey, the emotional message sent when someone is, in fact, at a loss for words, overcome by emotion. The absence of that connectedness was, in fact, startling—almost mirroring the vacuum of a tornado.
And that vacuum—the unsettling absence of something—made me think immediately of former President George Bush speaking near the rubble of the World Trade Center, his voice choked back with tears, his message conveyed in the embrace he gave retired firefighter Bob Beckwith. We didn’t need to hear that the president would not forget the victims of 9/11. We knew it. We heard it in his voice. We saw it in his eyes. We watched his whole being fill with that certainty.
I’m not prescribing any behavior pattern for the president here. I’m not judging him. I am, rather, puzzled by him. As a citizen, as someone who was, perhaps, hoping for a conduit to bring me even closer to the suffering of the folks shouldering great losses in Alabama, I was disappointed. I was left alone with my thoughts and feelings.
Leading through tragedy is a tremendously difficult challenge. Sometimes words make the difference. Sometimes, though, only human empathy, or human touch, or human tears can. Such is the immeasurable yearning of our people--to be unified by one individual for whom our national character would be no less than a chamber of his or her heart.
Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatrist and member of the Fox News Medical A-Team. He is a New York Times best-selling author, and co-author, with Glenn Beck, of the bestselling book “The 7: Seven Wonders that Will Change Your Life.” Dr. Ablow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.