Expressing regret for the prickly comment that Sgt. James Crowley had behaved stupidly in his rough treatment of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, the president has now admitted that his off-the-cuff remark was a mistake.

“I obviously helped to contribute ratcheting it up,” the president said in an appearance in the White House briefing room. “I want to make clear that in my choice of words, I think I unfortunately gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sergeant Crowley specifically, and I could have calibrated those words differently.”

Following his first public statement on the Gates story, media outlets erupted with responses that ranged from support to hyperbolic criticism of the president.

The ever thoughtful and reflective Obama stepped back and now admits he could have handled it better. He made a mistake. After all, he wasn’t there when it happened. His original reaction was a conditioned response to a truth that has been and continues to be.   It is a fact of American history that people of color are disproportionately harassed by those who wield power.

Any empathic human being can understand that the president, reacting out of not only personal experience but the cultural context of systemic racism might overreact. Borrowing a page from Vice President Biden’s play book—Obama inserted foot in mouth.

Unlike his predecessor, Obama has the humility and grace to admit he made a mistake.  He is modeling not only how to have integrity as a leader, but also as an authentic human being. He freely admitted that his words contributed to ratcheting up the controversy.

His admission that, like Sgt. Crowley and Professor Gates, he too overreacted would have been sufficient to quell the storm. But for this president, it’s not enough to repent and move on. This president seems to know you cannot move on until you have cleaned up the mess.

Conflict is the drama of division. In this story, Crowley and the Cambridge police represent one side, Gates and people of color, the other. By his initial response, the president’s choice of words indicated that he was taking sides. He weighed in on one side of the conflict only to exacerbate it.

Stepping back from his comments Obama listened to other voices–without and within. Stepping back, he gathered more information. Stepping back, he reexamined the situation and realized that this particular situation was such a charged moment that perhaps Sgt. Crowley wasn’t behaving “stupidly” but he was overreacting as did professor Gates. And like the central characters in this story, Obama also realized he got sucked into the drama.   It is all very human and very understandable.

Take sides. Who is right, who is wrong? Draw the line.

But as the dustup settles one sees that the best way to resolve and transform a conflict is by acknowledging that everyone has a perspective—in every conflict there are two sides. More than not resolution and transformation of the clash requires that someone step in and represent the third side.

By doing more than admitting his mistake, President Obama took the third side when he invited Sgt. Crowley and Professor Gates to come together for a meeting.  What was originally an obstacle now becomes a brilliant opportunity for conflict transformation.

The author of the book, The Third Side, Bill Ury, has extensive experience in creative non-violent conflict resolution. Ury says that all forms of violence are comparable to a virus. Like a virus, violence lies sleeping, spreads throughout body of a culture and attacks suddenly–unless we have built up the social immune system against it. 

The best way to deal with violence is to prevent it. Violence flourishes when the social immune system is weak.

Finally, a president who understands what it takes to build up our immune system to forces of destructive conflict and violence.  Bring people together.