Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Obama inauguration

I've watched a number of inaugurations on TV. I can't say that I absolutely felt I had to watch them, but I did because, like voting itself, the American inauguration is a good-feeling day. It means we managed to transition power peacefully once again. It's "America's Day" as a Republican friend of mine--who just personally attended his 8th inauguration--put it.

But, in the past, I never felt the need to watch it with others. This one was different, and, apparently, I wasn't alone in feeling the need to be with others yesterday. I was in the library around 11:30 and students were already filtering in to watch some big screens there. The students were quiet, but attentive, expectant. I joined the group in our student union ballroom, a huge room. It had young and old, men and women, all races, international students. We watched the big TVs set up for the event together. Again, it was quiet. When he actually took the oath there were a few cheers, some stood up, some (like me) just motioned "yes!", everyone approached it his or her own way. It felt both individual and collective. I thought, this is how Obama would want it: not some 'rah-rah' event, not some sort of lock step set of reactions, no needless pressure to respond in a specific way. All we needed was to respond truthfully and respectfully as individuals in the company of each other. That's how free people should act, I think.

Rather like the crowd in the DC mall, we were not too talkative during his inaugural speech. A few up front cheered at points, but mostly it was a reflective time. So much is wrong, so much needs to be done, we all share in the failures of our country in recent years. A great many Americans took action last November to try to fix things--that's what elections are for, after all. Today was the result of those actions.

I think the restoration of respect for the rule of law, as Obama said, is the first step, having used our respect for elections. We have walked away from a belief in the rule of law with respect to our Constitution, we walked away from it in international affairs. Now, I see that Obama, within hours of becoming President, asked for a delay of military trials for people held in Guatanamo. I was impressed by that. It's not that all of them should go free, but they need fair trials and they need to be released after all these years if they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Great power requires great restraint, and we have to remember this every day.

So, we watched the inauguration with each other-- amazed into an uncharacteristic, for Americans, quietness. It was good. I don't know if we can actually find our best selves and show it to each other and the world, but at least we know what it looks like when we see it.