Phony-sounding concern


Why do politicians feel the need to go over the top when it comes to public expressions of sympathy? Why cannot they state what would be a normal and understandable expression of sorrow and leave it at that?

The Plain Dealer on 1/27/05 had a report on G. W. Bush’s first press conference of his second term, which occurred just after the helicopter crash in Iraq that killed 31 US servicemen and servicewomen. He said “And we weep and mourn when soldiers lose their life.�

Does anyone think that he actually weeps when soldiers die? Or that he has periods of mourning for them? More likely, such incidents are but passing events that occupy his mind briefly to be quickly replaced by others.

It is the families and loved ones of the people who die who actually weep and mourn their loss, It is not that the rest of us don’t care but our depth of response has necessarily to be on a different scale, The normal reaction of any person who is given news of a tragic event but is not directly affected by it is to feel sadness, to feel sorry for the families who lost a loved one, and perhaps ponder the fragility of life and the inevitability of death.

Those who supported the attack on Iraq might combine those feelings with a greater sense of resolve while those (like me) who opposed it might also feel some anger at yet another example of the deaths, injuries, and suffering caused to Iraqi and American people by this unprovoked and illegal war.

The recent tsunami killed about 250,000 people, most of them very poor, one third of them children, leaving ruptured and devastated families on a scale hard to fathom. About 30,000 of those deaths occurred in my country of origin Sri Lanka, but even then I did not “weep and mourn�, but experienced feelings of deep melancholy combined with shock at the scale of the deaths, surprise at its suddenness, and a sense of awe that nature could unleash such fury.

It is probable that “weep and mourn� was used as a rhetorical flourish, not meant to be taken literally, but it still strikes me as sounding phony in the forum of a press conference. It may sound natural coming from a clergyman in a sermon, alluding as it does to the Biblical story of Rachel grieving for her lost children. It may even sound appropriate for a politician giving a set speech in a formal setting where one expects some figures of speech. But in a question-and-answer format, which calls for a more conversational tone, it sounds artificial and forced, as if the speaker expects listeners to doubt the genuineness of his concern and so overcompensates.

George W. Bush is by no means the only politician who does this. I similarly cringed whenever Bill Clinton claimed “I feel your pain.� No, you don’t, I felt like telling him. No one can really feel somebody else’s pain. All we can feel is sadness, concern, and sympathy, all of which are worthy emotions, but trampled on by politicians in their eagerness to sound more-concerned-than-thou.

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