It says something when the president's handling of a heckler becomes a story in and of itself, especially when that story is a sideline to a very important and substance-filled speech about the future prosecution of terrorists and the use of unmanned drones. And what it says isn't good.
President Obama was interrupted several times by a woman (later identified with being with the left-leaning group Code Pink) who badgered him with questions about closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. This is an important question, to be sure, and Obama has yet to follow through on a campaign promise to close it. But yelling at the chief executive – no matter who he is or what you think of him – in the middle of a speech is just rude. The fact that she did it while he was in the middle of addressing that very question is even more irritating. And it exposes what the true motivation was on the part of the protester: to draw attention to herself.
Obama handled it well, acknowledging her presence and her questions (an unnecessary concession to anyone who disrupts for the sake of disrupting) and finally reminding her that free speech means that she needs to listen, as well, while he is talking. The woman undermined her own legitimate cause by making it more about herself and the theater of it all than about the issue itself. And that is a theme that is becoming increasingly pervasive.
Court-watchers are horrified that convicted murderer Jodi Arias was allowed to give interviews while the jury was still deliberating on her (yet undetermined) penalty. That's an understandable emotion – who wants to hear from someone found guilty of a brutal killing? But when the media (and viewers) turn the criminal justice system into a three-act play, we can't be shocked if one of the main characters wants to deliver a closing soliloquy.
The hearings on Capitol Hill over a series of controversies – some far more serious than the others – have also become low-grade theater, with the accusations, rhetoric and character assessments dominating the process. The sheer soap opera tone of it all threatens to overshadow the very serious and important role of Congress in overseeing the executive branch. But the setup of the modern system, in which everything is televised, 24/7, promotes the idea of government as theater.
As for Obama and his heckler, how sad that the issue has become not why an adult person would behave so rudely, denying the president the right to speak in the name of the First Amendment, but how the president handled the situation. It's unfortunately become acceptable – or at least, accepted – for grown people to scream at hosts at town hall meetings, shout over people espousing opposing viewpoints on TV, and even to interrupt the president of the United States while he is delivering a formal speech on a deadly serious topic. Most of us learned at the age of about four that such behavior would be punished, and so stopped doing it. Such behavior is now rewarded with media attention.