DALLAS — President Barack Obama warned Tuesday that a week of violence and racial tension exposed the deepest fault lines in American democracy, but urged Americans not to despair because the nation would overcome its divides.
“I understand, I understand how Americans are feeling,” Obama said at an interfaith service for five police officers gunned down in Dallas last week.
The President told relatives of those killed and law enforcement and community leaders that the events of last week had exposed the “deepest fault lines of our democracy” and even widened them.
But he insisted: “We are not as divided as we seem. I know that because I know America.”
Obama said that police officers in Dallas and around the country had embraced their profession that came with risks like no other.
“From the moment you put on that uniform you have answered a call that at any moment, even in the briefest interaction, may put your life in harm’s way,” Obama said, but also mentioned how many African American communities believed they were treated unfairly by police.
For five days, the news has revolved around the horrific details of the slayings, but on Tuesday afternoon the focus was on the men in blue who lost their lives keeping watch over what had been a peaceful protest.
Brent Thompson, 43, a newlywed.
Lorne Ahrens, 48, whose smile was regularly reciprocated.
Patrick Zamarripa, 32, a father.
Michael Krol, 40, whose lifelong dream was to become a police officer.
Michael Smith, 55, the Army Ranger and family man.
President Obama praised police for protecting and serving the people.
“Like police officers across the country, these men and their families shared a commitment to something larger than themselves. … The reward comes in knowing that our entire way of life in America depends on the rule of law, that the maintenance of that law is a hard and daily labor, that in this country, we don’t have soldiers in the streets or militias setting the rules. Instead, we have public servants, police officers, like the men who were taken away from us.”
Police in Dallas “showed incredible restraint” and “saved more lives than we will ever know,” Obama said.
“When the bullets started flying, the men and women of the Dallas police, they did not flinch, and they did not act recklessly,” he said.
Speaking at the memorial, former President George W. Bush called for unity.
“At times, it seems like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together. Argument turns too easily into animosity. … Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions,” he said.
But Americans have a great advantage, Bush said.
“To renew our unity, we only need to remember our values. We have never been held together by blood or background,” he said. “We are bound by things of the spirit, by shared commitments to common ideals.”
The Dallas officers were fatally gunned down Thursday by a sniper, an armed-to-the-teeth Army veteran who targeted the officers, perhaps as retribution for police violence largely unrelated to north Texas. Police are still working to nail down an exact motive.
Dallas police officers and other first responders were among those filling the 2,000 seats in the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, along with the families of the officers killed and injured in last week’s attack and two civilians who were wounded, city spokeswoman Patricia Blasquez told CNN.
Top officials from the city and nation were also there to honor the five officers and their loved ones.
The ceremony was not public, but the memorial was being simulcast at Klyde Warren Park, a short walk from the symphony hall. If the Monday night vigil for these officers outside City Hall was any indication, the 5-acre downtown park was expected to be at capacity. The White House website was also streaming the event.
In addition to their rare joint appearance, Obama and Bush also met with the families of the slain officers. The two men saw the families following the memorial service, Blasquez said.
Obama has acknowledged the sorrow, anger and confusion over recent events in the country, and he has urged Americans to use the violence as impetus to unify and cautioned them against viewing the Dallas shooting as some microcosm of the country’s problems.
An interfaith choir opened Tuesday afternoon’s service, and the Dallas Police Choir performed the national anthem. An imam, rabbi and Methodist reverend from the area delivered an interfaith prayer before the speakers took the podium.
CNN’s Shawn Nottingham contributed to this report.