Speaking at a memorial service at the University of Arizona in Tucson, President Obama honored the victims of last weekend’s shooting rampage in that city, sharing thoughts about those who had died and lauding the heroic behavior displayed during and after the attack.
Mr. Obama also spoke of the ideal of representative democracy; Saturday’s shooting had taken place at a meet-and-greet for constituents – called “Congress on your Corner’’ – hosted by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) of Arizona, who was gravely injured in the attack.
Obama stunned the assembled crowd by revealing that Congresswoman Giffords had opened her eyes for the first time since the attack right after the president and his wife visited her in her hospital room. Giffords’s husband, space shuttle commander Capt. Mark Kelly, sat next to Michelle Obama in the front row.
But amid the expressions of hope and mourning, the president also dove into the national controversy over whether political passions and inflamed rhetoric had created a climate conducive to the attack by the gunman.
“At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized – at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who happen to think differently than we do – it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds,” said Obama, speaking at the university’s McKale Memorial Center.
The president called on Americans to listen and empathize, not focus on division, speaking directly to the title of the event, “Together We Thrive: Tucson and America.”
“What we can’t do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each another,” Obama said. “That we cannot do. As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility.”
“Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame,” he continued, “let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together.”
Obama spoke movingly of all those killed in the attack.
One victim, Judge John Roll, was the chief federal judge for Arizona, who had been recommended to the federal bench by Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona. In two instances, elderly men shielded their wives when the bullets began to fly; one of the men, Dorwan Stoddard, died. The other, George Morris, was shot but survived. His wife, Dorothy, passed away. Obama called another victim, Phyllis Schneck, “our mom and our grandma.”
Obama sought to use the death of the youngest victim as a source of inspiration.
“She had been elected to her student council; she saw public service as something exciting and hopeful,” he said. “She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model. She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted.”
“I want to live up to her expectations,” Obama said.
The packed auditorium grew raucous at times, as emotions ran high. The 20-year-old Giffords intern, Daniel Hernandez, credited with saving Giffords’s life when he ran to her side and ministered to her wounds as soon as she fell, gave a moving speech, rejecting the notion that he’s a hero. Obama later begged to differ.
Mr. Hernandez occupied a seat of honor next to the president in the front row, before and after the president spoke.
Other speakers included Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R), Attorney General Eric Holder, and Homeland Security Secretary and former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D). Also seated in the front row were former Supreme Court Justice and Arizona native Sandra Day O’Connor and Justice Anthony Kennedy.