from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

The President’s "Papal Infallibility"

February 11, 2015

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The current flap over President Obama’s comment on the killings in Paris would, in an ordinary administration, never have happened.

To review, the President gave an interview in which he said “It is entirely legitimate for the American people to be deeply concerned when you’ve got a bunch of violent, vicious zealots who behead people or randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris.”

This was quite obviously a terrible misstatement, a huge error. For in fact, there was nothing random about the attack on the kosher grocery. The attacker meant to kill Jews. That’s why he attacked a kosher grocery and not one specializing in pork products or Asian specialties or Scottish cuisine. That’s why the government of France labeled the attack an act of murderous anti-Semitism.

What did administration spokespeople say? White House spokesman Josh Earnest said “The adverb that the president chose was used to indicate that the individuals who were killed in that terrible, tragic incident were killed not because of who they were but because of where they randomly happened to be....There were people other than just Jews who were in that deli...."

This is absurd. The four Jews who were killed in the grocery were killed exactly and precisely because of "who they were."  They did not "randomly happen to be" anywhere; they were buying kosher food because they were Jews. The ridiculous characterization by Earnest would mean that if Jews were murdered in a synagogue, that might be "not because of who they were but because of where they randomly happened to be." That there were other people there "than just Jews" is so completely irrelevant that one can only hope Earnest is ashamed of what he said.

Then State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said “If I remember the victims specifically, they were not all victims of one background or one nationality so I think what they mean by that is, I don’t know that they spoke to the targeting of the grocery store or that specifically, but the individuals impacted.” First, all four people killed at the Jewish grocery were in fact Jews. Oh, sorry; perhaps we should say "all four people impacted there were Jews," using Psaki’s lingo. And once again, the notion that it isn’t targeting Jews if the killer didn’t have a list of intended victims is absurd. He didn’t care who he killed as long as they were Jews.

Now, in an ordinary administration someone would have heard the President’s remarks and said "aw jeez, we have a problem. He really blew it. Now what do we do?" And someone in authority, one of the top three or four presidential advisers, would have told the president that he blew it, and press guidance would have been issued. The press would have been told, probably on background, that "the president obviously misspoke. He had meant to say that the fate of individual victims was random--exactly because the killer didn’t care whom he killed as long as they were Jews. Obviously it’s a case of murderous anti-Semitism and obviously the President knows that. He just didn’t say it right. Happens to all of us."

But that did not happen, and I suspect it is because this president takes a stance of what we might call "papal infallibility." He can’t be wrong. He doesn’t make mistakes. As the saying goes about papal infallibility, he "is preserved from the possibility of error." So the administration instead digs itself in deeper and deeper. Anyway, let’s hope this is the right explanation. The only other one is that the president is determined to downplay the fact of anti-Semitism, either because he’s angry at the Israelis or because he thinks that speaking out too loudly about anti-Semitism may anger Muslims around the world. Compared to that explanation, the mere assertion of infallibility would be good news.