Obama Calls for Civility Over Conflict in Shooting Aftermath

President Barack Obama implored Americans to choose compassion over conflict in the aftermath of the mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona, that killed six people, including a 9-year-old girl, and critically wounded a member of Congress.

“The truth is, none of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack,” Obama said at an arena-filling memorial service yesterday for the victims of the Jan. 8 rampage. “What we cannot do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other. That we cannot do.”

The president used the life stories of the victims and the heroism of people in the crowd who jumped to their aid as illustrations of the heartbreak and hope that emerged from the chaotic scene after a gunman opened fire at a public meeting organized by U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head. Thirteen others were wounded.

A sign of that hope came from Giffords, whom Obama visited in the hospital before the service. Obama said that after he and first lady Michelle Obama left her room, Giffords was with three close congressional Democratic colleagues -- House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York -- when she opened her eyes for the first time since being wounded.

The overflow crowd in the basketball arena at the University of Arizona, Tucson, erupted.

“Gabby opened her eyes,” Obama said, “so I can tell you, she knows we are here, she knows we love her, and she knows that we are rooting for her.”

Praise From Commentators

The president’s address, melding celebratory tales of the young and old who lost their lives in Tucson with a televised appeal to a nation in need of more civil debate, drew widespread praise from commentators. They agreed that Obama had seized a moment that presidents before him had found in the aftermath of tragedy.

”It was moving, but it was more than moving,” said Peggy Noonan, who was a speechwriter for Republican President Ronald Reagan.

”It was large-spirited,” she said in an appearance on MSNBC’s ”Morning Joe” today. ”And it spoke from a good height about how this whole debate about civil discourse didn’t get us to that shooting, but a relooking at our civil discourse and making it better can get us out of the muck of the shooting.”

It was Noonan who had handed Reagan the words of the poet John Magee Jr. -- ”slipped the surly bonds of Earth and touched the face of God” -- for a televised address to the nation after the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1984.

‘Brilliant approach’

Charles Krauthammer, commenting on Fox News after the president’s speech last night, called it ”a brilliant rhetorical approach.” On ”Special Report with Brett Baier,” Krauthammer said: ”The president’s speech was a remarkable display of oratory and oratorical skill, in terms of the tone and the content.”

”It was a very interesting and successful way of advocating a civil discourse without endorsing those on the left who were talking about uncivil discourse as a cause of this event,” said Krauthammer, a FOX News contributor.

In a 34-minute speech repeatedly interrupted by applause, Obama repeated his call for greater civility in public discourse, and he sought to squelch an increasingly heated debate over whether political rhetoric contributed to the violence.

‘Honest Public Discourse’

“If, as has been discussed in recent days, their death helps usher in more civility in our public discourse,” he said, “let us remember it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy -- it did not -- but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make them proud.”

Obama said it is human nature to demand explanations to “make sense of out of that which seems senseless.” The debates, under way already, about issues from the motivations behind the killings to gun safety laws to the nation’s mental health system are part of the exercise in self-government, he said.

The arena was filled to capacity with 14,300 people for the service, with 13,000 more in an overflow area set up at the university’s football field, according to school officials.

The event mixed somber remembrance and a rally-like atmosphere of cheers and clapping. As the doctors who treated Giffords walked in, the audience gave them a standing ovation. Obama drew applause when he arrived as well.

‘Healing Process’

Jerri Boerum, 37, said she kept her children, ages 2, 11 and 12, out of school yesterday to make sure they would be able to attend the service and hear Obama’s speech.

“I wanted my children to be a part of the healing process,” she said in an interview. “It means a lot that President Obama’s here.”

In his remembrances of the victims and his appeal for the nation to aspire to a higher level, Obama highlighted the life of Christina Green, the 9-year-old killed in the shooting.

He recounted how she had just been elected to the student council and was “just starting to glimpse the fact that someday she, too, might play a part in shaping her nation’s future.”

Christina “saw public service as something exciting and hopeful” and was at Giffords’s event to see a role model, he said.

“I want us to live up to her expectations,” Obama said, drawing applause from the crowd. ‘I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it.”

Presidential Challenges

The task of expressing empathy and providing context in the midst of tragedy has produced some of the most durable imagery of recent presidencies: Reagan addressing the nation on the day of the Challenger space shuttle explosion, Bill Clinton with the families of bombing victims in Oklahoma City, and George W. Bush amid the smoldering rubble of the World Trade Center.

The memorial service was held against a backdrop of partisan skirmishing over how to interpret the actions of Jared Lee Loughner, the 22-year-old man accused of the shooting, and what role political rhetoric may have played.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, some public officials, including Pima County, Arizona, Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, criticized the strident language used by television and radio talk show hosts and some politicians. Authorities investigating the case haven’t discovered any link to politics in the shooting.

Sarah Palin’s Charge

Republican Sarah Palin, while condemning the violence, disputed the notion that the nation’s political rhetoric is overly charged or had any link to the shooting.

“Especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence that they purport to condemn,” Palin, the former governor of Alaska and her party’s 2008 vice presidential candidate, said in a video posted yesterday on the Internet. “That is reprehensible.”

Obama traveled to Tucson with a delegation of government officials and a bipartisan group of lawmakers that included Attorney General Eric Holder, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, Pelosi and Republican Representative Trent Franks of Arizona. Among those in the audience were retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, a former Arizona judge, and Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican.

Holder spoke at the service, as did Arizona Governor Jan Brewer and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, a former governor of the state.

To contact the reporters on this story: Hans Nichols in Tucson at hnichols2@bloomberg.net; Drew Armstrong in Tucson at darmstrong17@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net

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