- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Invoking the memory of a slain 9-year-old girl, a solemn President Obama on Wednesday night urged Americans to “live up to her expectations” and shelve bitter politics as the nation grieves for the victims of Saturday’s attack outside a Tucson, Ariz., supermarket that left six people dead and more than a dozen others, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, seriously injured.

Mr. Obama’s address at a deeply emotional memorial service capped a day of mourning that began earlier in the House of Representatives, where lawmakers from both sides of the aisle gathered to honor their colleague and other victims of the attack. They also commended those who subdued shooting suspect Jared Lee Loughner and tended to the wounded.

In Arizona, the president dedicated the bulk of his remarks to remembering the lives of those who died and calling for unity, notably keeping his distance from an often acerbic debate over whether heated political rhetoric by supporters of the tea party movement played any role in the attack on the Democratic lawmaker. That argument nevertheless continued to rage Wednesday after former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin sparked controversy by using the phrase “blood libel” in a video she released hitting back at the media over suggestions that her use of gun metaphors could have influenced the suspect.

Under high expectations to calm the tensions, Mr. Obama took on the role of healer-in-chief.

“The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better in our private lives, to be better friends and neighbors, co-workers and parents,” he told the crowd at the one-hour event, which opened with the national anthem and closed with a moment of silence. “And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let’s remember that 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.”

Mr. Obama urged the nation to pray for the loved ones of the victims as well as those still struggling to recover, including Mrs. Giffords, who remains in critical but stable condition.

Doctors said the 40-year-old “Blue Dog” Democrat, who was shot in the head at point-blank range as she met with constituents outside a local Safeway, is not yet “out of the woods,” but is showing encouraging signs of recovery. They said she is making small movements and can breathe on her own, although she is still on a breathing tube as an extra precaution.

Mr. Obama sparked a standing ovation when he announced Wednesday night that, soon after he had visited Mrs. Giffords in the afternoon, she opened her eyes for the first time since doctors operated on her Saturday.

Meanwhile, the investigation into Mr. Loughner revealed new details about the 22-year-old suspect and his activities the morning of the shootings. A local wildlife officer pulled him over for running a red light less than three hours before the attack on Mrs. Giffords and the people around her. Officials also say his father chased him into the desert after watching him remove a black bag from the trunk of the family car.

Investigators also uncovered a raft of evidence that appeared to show Mr. Loughner targeted Mrs. Giffords at the Loughner home, where Jared Loughner lives with his parents, according to the Associated Press.

“The truth is that none of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack,” Mr. Obama said. “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.”

Personifying the innocence of the six people who were killed Saturday was Christina Taylor Green, who recently was elected to her school’s student council. Born on Sept. 11, 2001, she took dance classes and was the only girl on a Little League baseball team.

“I want us to live up to her expectations,” Mr. Obama said. “If there are rain puddles in heaven, Christina is jumping in them today.”

Also killed were John M. Roll, Arizona’s chief federal judge, a 63-year-old former prosecutor who earned respect from both Democrats and Republicans in the state; former social worker Gabe Zimmerman, a 30-year-old staffer for Mrs. Giffords who was engaged to be married; 76-year-old retiree Dorwin Stoddard, who is credited with saving his wife Mavanell’s life by shielding her with his body; Dorothy Morris, 76, a retired homemaker and secretary who had been married for 50 years to her husband, George, who survived his wounds from the attack; and 79-year-old Phyllis Schneck, a church volunteer who spent summers in New Jersey and winters in Tucson.

“I believe we can be better. Those who died here, those who saved lives here — they help me believe,” Mr. Obama said. “We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another, that’s entirely up to us. And I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.”

Almost immediately after incident, the shootings prompted calls for a more civil political discourse and finger-pointing as to what might have prompted the attack. Some liberal pundits and lawmakers in particular have blamed Mrs. Palin, who had put Mrs. Giffords on her map of lawmakers to be defeated in last year’s elections, marked with what appeared to be cross hairs from the scope of a rifle.

On Wednesday, Mrs. Palin responded in a Web video, saying, “Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own” and “begin and end with the criminals who commit them.” But the former Republican vice presidential candidate set off a new firestorm by using the controversial phrase “blood libel,” which some say is anti-Semitic: “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 they purport to condemn.”

In his remarks, Mr. Obama cautioned against pointing fingers.

“What we can’t do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another,” he said. “As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. 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.”

Accompanying Mr. Obama from Washington were several members of the Arizona congressional delegation, Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., Department of Homeland Security Secretary and former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano and first lady Michelle Obama. Before his speech, Mr. Obama paid a visit to Mrs. Giffords and other victims who were still recovering at the University Medical Center in Tucson.

When Mr. Obama was not speaking, he sat in the first row next to Daniel Hernandez, a 20-year-old intern credited with helping keep Mrs. Giffords alive at the scene. Mrs. Obama sat next to Mrs. Giffords‘ husband, NASA astronaut Mark Kelly.

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