Sen. Claire McCaskill hugs unidentified young protester in Ferguson, Mo., on Thursday, Aug. 14. (Courtesy of Christine Ingrassia)
Sen. Claire McCaskill hugs an unidentified protester in Ferguson, Mo., Thursday. (Courtesy of Christine Ingrassia)

For a while there so much was going on, there was so much to process vis-a-vis the chaos of Ferguson, Mo., that I felt paralyzed. The words just didn’t flow. And then I saw the image above.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) is hugging an unknown “young protester” in Ferguson. We don’t need to know his name. In the five days since police shot and killed Michael Brown and left the body of the unarmed 18-year-old in the street for hours, we know why he’s protesting. And after Wednesday night’s chaos, we know why McCaskill’s hug is so powerful.

Watching the surreal scene of a local police force tricked out in militarized riot gear going after mostly peaceful protesters with tear gas and assault weapons, I took to Twitter to ask a question that should not have to have been asked. Where is Gov. Jay Nixon? And then I broadened my outrage to include Ferguson Mayor James Knowles and Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson. Not since the horror of watching the people of New Orleans plead for help in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 had I been appalled by the absence of leadership by local U.S. officials. This should not be happening in my country, I thought — and still think.

McCaskill was not absent. “Continuing to work the phones to de escalate the tense and unacceptable situation in Ferguson.#MikeBrown,” she tweeted at 9:22 p.m. on Wednesday. Two minutes later, Missouri’s senior senator tweeted, “Today & tonight dozens of calls including head of civil rights division at DOJ. Tomorrow call with Atty Gen Eric Holder.#MikeBrown.”

The nation watched law enforcement train weapons on, throw tear gas at and arrest non-violent protesters. We watched them target and arrest journalists whose job it is to be the eyes and ears of our democracy. What we saw was a breakdown of law and order by the very people sworn to uphold both. And it looked like it was happening without a care from local officials.

President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder made it clear Thursday that what happened Wednesday night was unacceptable. While they both condemned the looting and provocations of law enforcement by a precious few over the last few days, they also placed a sharp, critical focus on the excesses on display by the militarized police on Wednesday.

There is never an excuse for violence against police, or for those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism or looting.  There’s also no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests, or to throw protestors in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights.  And here, in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs and report to the American people on what they see on the ground.  – President Obama

For one thing, while the vast majority of protests have been peaceful, acts of violence by members of the public cannot be condoned. Looting and willful efforts to antagonize law enforcement officers who are genuinely trying to protect the public do nothing to remember the young man who has died. Such conduct is unacceptable and must be unequivocally condemned. By the same token, the law enforcement response to these demonstrations must seek to reduce tensions, not heighten them. Those who peacefully gather to express sympathy for the family of Michael Brown must have their rights respected at all times. And journalists must not be harassed or prevented from covering a story that needs to be told. – Attorney General Holder

Nixon, Knowles and Jackson also surfaced on Thursday. Their comments and demeanor left me disappointed on one level or another. But at least they are finally present.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj

Jonathan Capehart is a member of the Post editorial board and writes about politics and social issues for the PostPartisan blog.