In what is arguably his most critical moment to date for uniting the country, President Barack Obama on Wednesday evening called on Americans to honor the victims of a shooting rampage in Arizona by tamping down the vitriolic tone of debate that has polarized the nation over the past two years.
“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 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,” Obama told the crowd of 14,000 gathered for the memorial at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Among those in the audience were Attorney General Eric Holder, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and Arizona Republican Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl.
All eyes have been on the president in anticipation of his response to one of the darkest tragedies during his time in office: A Tucson gunman killed six people and injured 14 during a public event Saturday with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who was shot in the head and remains in critical condition.
Obama remained stoic throughout his roughly 30-minute address to the nation, during which he quoted scripture in an effort to console. He sought to cast himself as just one of many Americans and emphasized that he, along with the rest of the country, is grieving alongside the Tucson community.
“I have come here tonight as an American who, like all Americans, kneels to pray with you today and will stand by you tomorrow,” he said. “We mourn with you for the fallen. We join you in your grief. And we add our faith to yours that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the other living victims of this tragedy pull through.”
The president said the deaths should make all Americans reflect on how to be better in their own lives and bring more civility to the public discourse.
“If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost,” he said. “Let’s make sure it’s not on the usual plane of politics and point scoring and pettiness that drifts away with the next news cycle.”
In one of the more poignant moments of the night, Obama said he visited Giffords earlier in the evening and, after he left, she opened her eyes for the first time since she was shot in the head — news that drew cheers from the crowd and attention to Giffords’ husband, NASA astronaut Mark Kelly, who was seated in the front row.
“So I can tell you, she knows we are here, she knows that we love her, she knows that we are rooting for her throughout what will be a difficult journey,” he said.
A Congressional source said later that Pelosi, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) were in the room with Giffords when she opened her eyes.
Obama ended his remarks by calling on Americans to aspire toward creating the kind of nation that Christina Taylor Green, a 9-year-old killed in the shooting, had imagined.
“Here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that someday she, too, might play a part in shaping her nation’s future,” he said. “I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us, we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.”