Before a raucous crowd aching from Saturday's deadly shootings, President Obama on Wednesday night urged Americans to tone down their rhetoric and debate "in a way that heals, not a way that wounds."
TUCSON, Ariz. — Before a raucous crowd aching from Saturday’s deadly shootings, President Obama on Wednesday night urged Americans to tone down their rhetoric and debate “in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.”
“Bad things happen, and we must guard against simple explanations in the aftermath,” he said. “We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us.”
Obama also said that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., gravely wounded by a bullet that passed through the left side of her brain, opened her eyes for the first time Wednesday, apparently minutes after the president and first lady Michelle Obama visited her at the hospital.
“She knows we are here,” the president told the crowd at the University of Arizona.
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Michelle Obama held hands with Giffords’ husband, Mark Kelly, as the news brought soaring cheers from thousands gathered for a memorial service.
“There is nothing I can say that will fill the sudden hole torn in your hearts,” Obama said. “But know this: The hopes of a nation are here tonight. We mourn with you for the fallen. We join you in your grief.”
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, told the crowd the shooting “pierced our sense of self-being” but vowed the state “will not be shredded by one madman’s act of darkness.”
The event, just days after a gunman killed six people and wounded 13 during the congresswoman’s constituent event outside a suburban Safeway store, took the tone of a rally for unity, rather than a memorial service for the dead.
National leaders and local heroes were met with repeated standing ovations and cheers. Thousands who attended wore navy-blue T-shirts with the event’s theme, “Together We Thrive, Tucson and America.”
“If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost,” Obama 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.”
Obama cautioned against jumping to conclusions about the killer’s motives. “For the truth is that none of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack. None of us can know with any certainty what might have stopped those shots from being fired, or what thoughts lurked in the inner recesses of a violent man’s mind.”
Obama concluded by urging the country to live up to the expectations of the youngest victim, 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green.
“Imagine: 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,” Obama said. “She saw public service as something exciting, something hopeful.”
Christina was one of 50 babies born on 9/11 to be featured in a book called “Faces of Hope.” Next to her picture, she wrote, “I hope you jump in rain puddles.”
Said Obama: “If there are rain puddles in heaven, Christina is jumping in them today.”
In addition to meeting with Giffords at the hospital before the memorial, Obama visited the four others recovering at the hospital. Joined by Attorney General Eric Holder and Arizona’s Republican Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl, the president also met with 13 relatives of the six people killed.
Earlier Wednesday, the chief trauma surgeon, Peter Rhee, said that Giffords was doing as well as could be expected. Although permanent damage is likely, she is moving more and tugged at her gown, the doctor said.
“She was able to actually even feel her wounds herself,” Rhee said. “Will she be functional, viable, normal? I can’t say for sure, but I’m very hopeful she will be.”
Rhee and other central players did not speak at the memorial, but they were saluted like rock stars as they entered the arena and given rowdy standing ovations.
The most sustained cheers came for Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, who after the shooting famously called Arizona “the mecca for bigotry and violence,” and for Daniel Hernandez, 20, the congressional intern and University of Arizona student credited with saving Giffords’ life by cradling her head and applying pressure to her wound.
Hernandez was seated in a place of honor beside Obama. In brief remarks, Hernandez rejected the label of hero, and said the shooting should unite, not divide, Americans.
“E Pluribus Unum — out of many, one,” he said. “On Saturday, we all became Tucsonians. On Saturday, we all became Arizonans. We all became Americans.”
During the hourlong ceremony, no one uttered the alleged shooter’s name, and Jared Loughner remained locked in a federal prison in Phoenix, charged with Giffords’ attempted assassination, the murder of a federal judge, John Roll, and a federal employee, Gifford aide Gabe Zimmerman. If convicted, Loughner faces a possible death sentence.
Arizonans began lining up for the evening ceremony before dawn, and thousands waited in line for more than eight hours to attend. Roughly 13,000 filled the McKale Center, the University of Arizona’s basketball arena, and an additional 13,000 who were turned away watched the event on a large screen at the football stadium next door.
Earlier in Washington, D.C., House lawmakers spent the day rallying for their colleague’s recovery.
Tribute speeches from members halted midday for a bipartisan prayer service, during which House Speaker John 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.
The House then approved a resolution honoring Giffords and the other Tucson victims. The resolution condemned “in the strongest possible terms the horrific attack” and praised the “bravery and quick thinking exhibited by those individuals who prevented the gunman from potentially taking more lives.”
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.