A nation's broken-hearted father spoke Saturday to this broken-hearted city and to the broken-hearted families of five servicemen who died here a month ago at the hands of what U.S. Vice President Joe Biden called a "perverted jihadist."
The very eloquent and plain-spoken Biden moved easily between grief, tribute and stirring patriotism. What he didn't do — in any sentence of his nearly 25-minute address — was mince words.
"Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Sullivan, Staff Sgt. David Wyatt, Sgt. Carson Holmquist, Petty Officer Randall Smith and Lance Cpl. Squire Wells — these are the men made of the stuff that makes this country the greatest country on earth. They're part of the less than 1 percent of the U.S. population that protects 99 percent of us. They are what makes us who we are. They are the backbone the virtual bone and sinew of this country. And in the face of dangers and threats, we look out for one another. We stand together. We never, never bow. We never, never bend. These perverse ideologues, warped theocrats, they may be able to inspire a single lone wolf to commit a savage act, but they can never, never threaten who we are."
At times, seeming to focus his attention directly to the families, he said what only a man who has lost a spouse and children — including a son who died of cancer in May — can really say with meaning.
"Nothing can replace the son who, as he walked away from you and turned and smiled at you and lit up your life. Literally lit up your life just smiling at you. And a husband who knew your fears even before you expressed them, whose gentle hand could soothe them away. The dad who tucked you in at night and touched your face and made you feel so secure. The brother who always, always, always had your back.
"But please know he'll be the voice you hear in your ear telling you 'that's OK.' He'll be that feeling in your chest that calms you down, that look from the mirror that gives you the confidence to move forward, and that sunset that says, 'I see you. I see you.'"
Vice President Biden brought us to tears, dried our tears, then brought us to our feet in roaring determination to survive and stand tall.
Now it is time — past time — for federal investigators to do their part. It is time for authorities to help us heal by clearing the air about exactly what happened here on July 16 when Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez drove a rented silver Mustang convertible in front of the military recruiting center on Lee Highway and sprayed bullets into the window before speeding away to a Navy and Marine reserve center several miles away. There he ran inside and began shooting again. In a matter of minutes, four Marines were dead and a sailor lay fatally wounded. Abdulazeez died during the ensuing gun battle with police. Another Marine and a Chattanooga police officer were injured.
Abdulazeez, 24, was a Kuwait-born, Chattanooga-raised Jordanian whose parents are of Palestinian descent. At first, a federal prosecutor said the shootings were being investigated as a case of homegrown domestic terrorism. Days later after walking back the prosecutor's remark (as well as comments from a congressman on the committee overseeing Homeland Security), the FBI called Abdulazeez a "homegrown violent extremist." The FBI added that it was "too early" to say whether he was "radicalized" before the attacks. Now the vice president calls the attacker a "perverted jihadist."
Chattanoogans have shown that we are a stable and forgiving city, willing to dress our wounds and work to unite communities. But we all know the way to let a wound fester is not to allow it healing air and light. For weeks, investigators have hidden behind statements about incomplete ballistics testing and unfinished forensic examinations — even while other statements from these same investigators cited such tests.
Authorities must stop the semantics and the dodging. No matter what we eventually call it — mass shooting, homegrown extremism, homegrown terrorism or international terrorism — what happened here was terror and it was unthinkable.
Now it is our history, and it's time to level with us, completely, about exactly what that history is.