President Obama spoke in highly personal terms Friday about how the shooting in Florida of a 17-year-old black youth named Trayvon Martin had affected him, saying that “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.’’
The comments by Obama were his first on the explosive case in which a neighborhood watch captain, George Zimmerman, has claimed self-defense after shooting Martin several weeks ago. The case has generated outrage about the state’s “stand your ground’’ law.
Obama was asked about his feelings regarding the case during the announcement of his nominee for president of the World Bank in the Rose Garden on Friday morning.
The president often appears perturbed when he is asked off-topic questions at ceremonial events, but Friday, he seemed eager to address the case, which has quickly developed into a national cause celebre. He cautioned that his comments would be limited because the Justice Department was investigating. But he talked at length about his feelings about the case.
“I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this,’’ Obama said. “All of us have to do some soul-searching to figure out how does something like this happen.’’
The brief remarks were nonetheless a rare example of Obama speaking to the nation as a black parent and the father of two children.
“Obviously, this is a tragedy. I can only imagine what these parents are going through,’’ Obama said, his face grim. “When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids.’’
The most powerful line came at the end of his brief remarks, as he said that his “main message’’ was directed at the parents of Martin, who have expressed their deep grief during interviews on television over the past several days.
“You know, if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,’’ Obama said, pausing for a moment. “I think they are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves and we are going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened.’’
Obama sidestepped some of the most sensitive and politically charged specifics about the case - whether Zimmerman should be arrested; whether the “stand your ground’’ law goes too far in protecting people who shoot others; whether the police chief in Sanford, where the shooting took place, should be fired. (The chief, Bill Lee, stepped down temporarily Thursday, saying he had become a distraction to the investigation.)
“I’m the head of the executive branch, and the attorney general reports to me,’’ Obama said. “So I’ve got to be careful about my statements to make sure that we’re not impairing any investigation that’s taking place right now.’’
Thousands of supporters of Martin’s parents expressed their outrage about the killing at a rally in Florida on Thursday night, adding to the growing political dimensions of the case.
The shooting took place Feb. 26, when Zimmerman, 28, pursued, confronted, and fatally shot Martin, an unarmed high school student carrying only an iced tea and a bag of Skittles.
In a statement Friday, Mitt Romney, the presumed front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, said: “What happened to Trayvon Martin is a tragedy. There needs to be a thorough investigation that reassures the public that justice is carried out with impartiality and integrity.’’
Rick Santorum made some pointed comments about the killing while campaigning at a shooting range in West Monroe, La., before the Louisiana primary Saturday. “Well, stand your ground is not doing what this man did,’’ he said. “There’s a difference between stand your ground and doing what he did. It’s a horrible case. I mean it’s chilling to hear what happened, and of course the fact that law enforcement didn’t immediately go after and prosecute this case is another chilling example of horrible decisions made by people in this process.’’
Newt Gingrich, campaigning Friday in Port Fourchon, La., said the district attorney had done “the right thing’’ in impaneling a grand jury. But, speaking of Zimmerman, he said it was “pretty clear that this is a guy who found a hobby that’s very dangerous.’’
“Having some kind of neighborhood watch is reasonable, but you had somebody who was clearly overreaching,’’ Gingrich said. “As I understand Florida law, what he was doing had nothing to do with the law that people are talking about.’’