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Tucson shootings: Let us heal together, Obama says at memorial event

By Philip Rucker, Anne E. Kornblut and Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 13, 2011; 11:22 AM

TUCSON - President Obama comforted a community suffused with grief and summoned the nation to recommit to a more civil public discourse as he delivered a eulogy Wednesday evening urging Americans to talk with each other "in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds."

Evoking memories of the six killed here Saturday, Obama seized upon the mass shooting at a congresswoman's supermarket meet-and-greet to tackle directly the subject of the nation's harsh political dialogue. He sharply decried the "politics and point-scoring and pettiness that drifts away with the next news cycle."

"Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, 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 our hopes and dreams are bound together," Obama told 14,000 people at the University of Arizona's McKale Memorial Center.

Obama did not ascribe a political motive to the alleged shooter, or suggest that either party was to blame. Rather, in a 33-minute speech, he sought to move the nation past the tragedy.

Accompanied at the arena by first lady Michelle Obama, the president said he joins Tucson in its grief, that he came here "as an American who, like all Americans, kneels to pray with you today and will stand by you tomorrow."

After touching down under blue skies and a bright desert sun, Obama paid a surprise visit to victims recovering at University Medical Center, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who was shot in the head and remains in the intensive care unit.

A short time after the president left her room, Giffords, surrounded by her husband and three close friends from Congress - House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) - opened her eyes and reached for her husband, showing a level of responsiveness that thrilled her loved ones.

"Gabby opened her eyes," said Obama, who was told about the incident by Giffords's husband during the short ride from the hospital to the arena. "And I can tell you she knows we are here, she knows we love her, and she knows we are rooting for her"

In Washington, lawmakers still unnerved by the assassination attempt on one of their own offered a display of bipartisan unity. More than 120 Democrats and Republicans went to the well of the House to pay tribute in moving and sometimes tearful speeches. The House unanimously approved a resolution late Wednesday condemning the attack and praising the rescue work of citizen and emergency responders.

Meanwhile, federal and local investigators sought to determine how suspect Jared Lee Loughner came upon the money to buy the weapon and ammunition he allegedly used in Saturday's rampage, parts of which were captured on the supermarket's security camera.

Judge Larry A. Burns of the Southern District of California was appointed to hear Loughner's case after federal judges in Arizona recused themselves because of their personal relationships with one of the victims, Judge John M. Roll.

The hopes of the nation were on Tucson, a shaken desert city that all week has mourned the fallen in hushed churches and at makeshift vigils. The first in a string of funerals - this one for 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green - begin Thursday.

"Everyone in our community is grieving," the Rev. Gerald F. Kicanas, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson, said in a homily at a Tuesday memorial service. "We are pained and concerned about what took place. We are a community questioning, wondering, struggling with how such violence could happen."

Wednesday evening's hour-long "Together We Thrive: Tucson and America" service was full of spiritual overtones. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano read from the book of Isaiah. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. read from Corinthians.

Audience members cheered and hollered throughout the service, at times making it appear more like a rally than a somber memorial. Organizers distributed navy T-shirts to attendees, many of whom snapped pictures of Obama and a host of dignitaries, including Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R).

But the crowd did not lose sight of the purpose. As Giffords's family entered with three hospital surgeons wearing white lab coats over their scrubs, the crowd stood in applause. Other heroes of the shooting, including Daniel Hernandez, the intern who tended to Giffords at the crime scene, were engulfed in cheers as they were shown on the arena's video screen.

Obama looked gravely serious throughout, pursing his lips even when the crowd screamed in delight. He appeared deeply moved throughout the service - unusual for a president often criticized for seeming too rote or detached. When he referred to Christina Taylor Green, he appeared close to tears; Michelle Obama was crying throughout.

The Tucson rampage called for Obama to console weary citizens just as he did after the 2009 massacre at Fort Hood, Tex., and as President George W. Bush did in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks and President Bill Clinton after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

For Obama, it was not the first time he had addressed tragedy and divisiveness. A hallmark of his tenure has been his eagerness to cast himself as a healer.

Obama shared personal details he had learned about the six dead - Roll, a hard-working judge and family man who went to Mass every day; Dorothy "Dot" Morris, whose 50-year honeymoon with her high school sweetheart was cut short; Phyllis Schneck, a gifted quilter who liked working under her favorite tree; Dorwan Stoddard, who fixed up a church with his dog, Tux; Gabe Zimmerman, a congressional aide engaged to be married and doing what he loved, helping people; and Christina, a curious girl full of magic who wanted to be the first female baseball player in the major leagues.

"Our hearts are broken by their sudden passing," Obama said. "Our hearts are broken - and yet, our hearts also have reason for fullness."

Obama said he was grateful for Hernandez, Patricia Maisch and others who ran through chaos at the scene of the massacre to save others.

"These men and women remind us that heroism is found not only on the fields of battle," Obama said. "They remind us that heroism does not require special training or physical strength. Heroism is here, all around us, in the hearts of so many of our fellow citizens, just waiting to be summoned - as it was on Saturday morning."

Obama's advisers said his remarks were designed to help calm down the current political conversation. He ruminated about young Christina's growing interest in her government. As he focused on the child, his wife's eyes brimmed with tears, and his remarks drew a sustained standing ovation as many in the crowd wept.

"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," Obama said. "I want to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. . . . All of us - we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children's expectations."

"If there are rain puddles in heaven, Christina is jumping in them today," he said, drawing a standing ovation that lasted 45 seconds. "And here on this Earth, we place our hands over our hearts, and we commit ourselves as Americans to forging a country that is forever worthy of her gentle, happy spirit."

Obama continued tweaking his speech on the 2,300-mile flight to Tucson, aides said, sending revisions back to Washington from Air Force One just hours before the service began.

With the State of the Union address less than two weeks away, Obama's advisers said it is likely that the president will raise the subject again in some manner in the days after the funerals here have finished - perhaps in his speech to Congress.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers spent the day rallying not for their partisan causes but for their colleague's recovery. Tribute speeches from members halted midday for a bipartisan prayer service, during which House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) urged his colleagues to not give in to fear of engaging voters back in their districts. "No assailant's bullet - no twisted act of violence or cruelty - can silence the sacred dialogue of democracy," Boehner said.

Giffords's office released a statement Wednesday night thanking Americans for their "truly moving" outpouring of support. "Even during the darkest times, our nation's capacity for kindness and fellowship reminds us of the best in people," the statement said.

Kornblut reported from Washington. Staff writers David Nakamura and Clarence Williams in Tucson and Jerry Markon, Paul Kane, Felicia Sonmez and Lucy Shackelford in Washington contributed to this report.

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