The president’s visit to Orlando, Florida, just four days after gunman Omar Marteen’s rampage was unusually quick, reflecting the unprecedented loss
Barack Obama embraced families of the victims of the Orlando Massacre on Thursday then gave heartfelt but pointed remarks. “They don’t care about the politics,” he said. “Neither do I.”
The president consoled relatives and spoke with doctors, emergency workers and staff from Pulse nightclub. Along with vice-president Joe Biden, he then placed 49 white roses at a memorial for the 49 victims at a performing arts center near the city hall.
The pain of past mass shootings weighed heavily upon him as, not the first time, he contemplated a city in mourning and railed against political inaction on gun control.
“Today, once again, as has been true too many times before, I held and hugged grieving family members and parents, and they asked, ‘why does this keep happening?’” he said, against a backdrop of rainbow-coloured balloons bobbing in the wind. “And they pleaded that we do more to stop the carnage.
“They don’t care about the politics. Neither do I. Neither does Joe. And neither should any parent out there who’s thinking about their kids being not in the wrong place, but in places where kids are supposed to be.”
It has been a sorrowful ritual for Obama to visit the scene of mass shootings in different corners of America. His visit to Orlando, Florida, just four days after gunman Omar Mateen’s rampage was unusually quick, reflecting the unprecedented loss. He stepped off Air Force One just before 1pm and was greeted by officials including mayor Buddy Dyer, who presented him with a T-shirt bearing a rainbow-coloured heart and the words Orlando United.
His motorcade travelled to the Amway Center in downtown to meet relatives of the dead as well as survivors and emergency workers. Obama and Biden also greeted people who were working at Pulse when the attack occurred.
“This community was shaken by an evil and hateful act,” Obama said at the memorial, where a US national flag was embroidered with the names of the dead and several signs proclaimed Orlando Strong. “Today, we are reminded of what is good. That there is compassion, empathy and decency, and most of all, there is love. That’s the Orlando that we’ve seen in recent days. And that is the America that we have seen.”
It was a day of raw and visceral emotion. Describing his meeting with the families, Obama said: “As you might imagine, their grief is beyond description. Through their pain and through their tears, they told us about the joy that their loved ones had brought to their lives.
“There were siblings there talking about their brothers and their sisters and how they were role models that they looked up to. There were husbands and wives who had taken a solemn vow; fathers and mothers who gave their full hearts to their children. These families could be our families. In fact, they are our family – they’re part of the American family.”
He added: “Today, the vice-president and I told them, on behalf of the American people, that our hearts are broken, too, but we stand with you and that we are here for you, and that we are remembering those who you loved so deeply.”
Among those he met was the family of Franky Jimmy Dejesus Velazquez, who at age 50 was the oldest victim of the shooting. His cousin, Vincent Villafane Dejesus, said Biden hugged the victim’s mother, Aida, and said: “You are not alone – we stand by you.”
Then Obama looked into Aida’s eyes and felt her pain, Dejesus said. “You cannot describe that emotional moment. We are very thankful for the support that they gave us, to the families, all the victims, and we are together in this.”
At that moment, surrounded by reporters, Aida fainted in the Orlando heat and received medical attention.
Along with the words of condolence, Obama, long frustrated in his attempts to impose stricter gun controls, did not lose this opportunity to call for cooperation across political lines to combat killers, whether international terrorist networks or otherwise.
“Unfortunately, our politics have conspired to make it as easy as possible for a terrorist or just a disturbed individual like those in Aurora and Newtown to buy extraordinarily powerful weapons – and they can do so legally,” he said.
Obama praised the Senate for scheduling votes nesx Monday on gun control measures, although the legislation is likely to fail. He expressed hope that senators who voted down a bill requiring background checks after the Sandy Hook shooting will have a change of heart.
But in Washington there was little sign of a shift in tone as Republican Senator John McCain was forced to walk back remarks claiming that Obama was “directly responsible” for the Orlando shooting.
McCain said: “Barack Obama is directly responsible for it, because when he pulled everybody out of Iraq, al-Qaeda went to Syria and became Isis and Isis is what it is today thanks to Barack Obama’s failures, utter failures by pulling everybody out of Iraq thinking that conflicts end just because we leave. So the responsibility for it lies with President Barack Obama and his failed policies.”
As criticism erupted, the former Republican nominee’s office released a clarifying statement soon after. “I misspoke,” it said. “I did not mean to imply that the president was personally responsible. I was referring to President Obama’s national security decisions, not the president himself.”
The office of Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid was quick to link McCain’s comments to the bluster of presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump, who earlier this week suggested Obama was complicit with terrorists.
“Senator McCain’s unhinged comments are just the latest proof that Senate Republicans are puppets of Donald Trump,” Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson said. “There is no daylight between Senate Republicans and Donald Trump.”
McCain has long been critical of Obama’s handling of foreign policy, often accusing the president of “leading from behind” with respect to Iraq and the Syrian civil war. His response was nonetheless peculiar within the context of gun policy, as McCain voted with Democrats to expand background checks after the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre in 2012 and recast the same vote in December when the measure came up once more following the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California.