- - Wednesday, November 19, 2014

When a fire breaks out, the brave come running. Those of lesser courage gather only to watch. Still others revel in the spectacle of destruction, as if cheering on the flames with chants of “burn, baby, burn.”

President Obama is among those of lesser courage since convulsion over racial tragedy first racked Ferguson, Missouri, last August. He can’t decide whether he’s with the demonstrators or with the people of Ferguson. He clearly has not been with the peacemakers.

Ferguson, a township on the outskirts of St. Louis, is waiting with dread the decision of a grand jury called to review the evidence in the shooting death of Michael Brown, 18, by Police Officer Darren Wilson. Was it a crime, and if so, by whom? The grand jury has been sifting through the evidence to determine who was at fault. The FBI says the violent protests that erupted (or were encouraged) after the shooting “will likely” erupt again if the white officer is not charged with a crime. The instigators are even now organizing the “spontaneous” demonstration.

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The president whose racial inheritance — his mother was white, his father black — suggests that he could be a natural reconciler has actually done not very much to soothe racial tensions. The New York Times reported Tuesday that Mr. Obama invited leaders of the Ferguson protests to the White House and, by the word of the Rev. Al Sharpton, told them to “stay on course.” They should “keep peace,” of course. It’s difficult to imagine how anyone could incite further violence and destruction more eloquently.

Mr. Obama has spurned the peacemaker role before. In 2012, he took sides in the Trayvon Martin incident before the evidence was collected, with his remark that if he had a son, he would look like the teenager killed by George Zimmerman. He invoked race in 2009 when Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested by a white police officer investigating a suspected burglary at the Gates home. The president tried to soften his interference into a local police incident with invitations to the parties involved to a “beer summit” at the White House. The result was more fizz than fact.

In contrast, Gov. Jay Nixon of Missouri, a Democrat, has acted responsibly, declaring a state of emergency in Ferguson and activating the state National Guard. Everyone, of whatever race, has a constitutional right to protest peacefully, and the state has an obligation to protect everyone and his property from harm by the mob.

Black anguish in Ferguson is understandable, and friends and supporters of Officer Wilson have sometimes answered legitimate anger with ridicule. Some of those friends and supporters put up a billboard with the legend, “Pants up, don’t loot,” mocking the mockery of the chant of demonstrators, some in droopy pants, “Hands up, don’t shoot.”

Mr. Obama has a long overdue responsibility to exhort Americans, regardless of race, to respect the law, to let the judicial organs determine whether and how justice is served in Ferguson. For the president to do otherwise is to betray the nation to the rule of the mob. We’ve been there before, and it was ugly and disgraceful.

Mr. Obama has yet to earn the Nobel Peace Prize that was awarded to him 12 days after his inauguration, simply on his promise to deliver “hope and change” to a fractious world. Americans have come to expect little peace from the president who learned civic responsibility from such radicals as Saul Alinsky and Frank Marshall Davis. But he’s the president and the people who elected him expect him to act presidential.

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