Obama to the nation: ‘We can be better than this’

(Reuters)

Summoning the soul of a nation, President Barack Obama on Wednesday implored Americans to honor those slain and injured in the Arizona shootings by becoming better people, telling a polarized citizenry that it is time to talk with each other “in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.” Following a hospital bedside visit with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the target of the assassination, he said: “She knows we’re here, and she knows we love her.”

In an electrifying moment, the president revealed that Giffords, who on Saturday was shot point-blank in the head, had opened her eyes for the first time shortly after his hospital visit. First lady Michelle Obama held hands with Giffords’ husband, Mark Kelly, as the news brought soaring cheers from thousands gathered for a memorial service.

Obama bluntly conceded that there is no way to know what triggered the shooting rampage that left six people dead, 13 others wounded and the nation shaken. He tried instead to leave indelible memories of the people who were gunned down, and to rally the country to use the moment as a reflection on the nation’s behavior and compassion.

“I believe we can be better,” Obama said to a capacity crowd in the university’s basketball arena and to countless others watching around the country.

“Those who died here, those who saved lives here — they help me believe,” the president 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.”

In crafting his comments, Obama clearly sought a turning point in the raw debate that has defined national politics. He faced the expectations to do more than console, but to encourage a new day of civility, all without getting overly political in a memorial service.

Obama settled on a theme of challenging the country to have a debate that is worthy of those who died. He tapped into the raging debate about the role of incendiary rhetoric without dwelling on it. “Let’s remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy. It did not,” the president said.

After offering personal accounts of every person who died, he challenged anyone listening to think of how to honor their memories, and he was not shy about offering direction. He admonished against any instinct to point blame or to drift into political pettiness or to latch onto simple explanations that may have no merit.

The president said it was OK, even essential, for the country to suddenly be debating gun control, mental health services and the motivations of the killer.

But then he added: “At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized — 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,” the president said.

The shooting happened as Giffords, a three-term Democrat who represents southern Arizona, was holding a community outreach event in a Tucson shopping center parking lot Saturday. A gunman shot her in the head and worked his way down the line of people waiting to talk with her, law enforcement officials said. The attack ended when bystanders tackled the man, Jared Lee Loughner, 22, who is in custody.

Obama’s speech, by turns somber and hopeful, at times took on the tone of an exuberant pep rally as he heralded the men who wrestled the gunman to the ground, the woman who grabbed the shooter’s ammunition, the doctors and nurses who treated the injured, the intern who rushed to Giffords’ aid. The crowd erupted in multiple standing ovations as each was singled out for praise.

The president ended up speaking for more than half an hour, doubling the expected length of his comments.

Memories of the six people killed dominated much of Obama’s speech.

The president, for example, recalled how federal Judge John Roll was on his way from attending Mass when he stopped to say hello to Giffords and was gunned down; Dorothy Morris, shielded by her husband, but killed nonetheless; and Phyllis Schneck, a Republican who took a shine to Giffords, a Democrat, and wanted to know her better.

He spoke at length of 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green, the only girl on her Little League team, who often said she wanted to be the first woman to play in the major leagues. She had just been elected to the student council at her elementary school and had an emerging interest in public service.

“I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it,” Obama said. The little girl was born on Sept. 11, 2001, and had been featured in a book about 50 babies born that day. The inscriptions near her photo spoke of wishes for a happy child’s life, including splashing in puddles.

Said Obama: “If there are rain puddles in heaven, Christina is jumping in them today.”

Obama hit an emotional high point when he told of Giffords opening her eyes for the first time not long after his visit to her bedside.

“Gabby opened her eyes, so I can tell you: She knows we are here, she knows we love her, and she knows that we are rooting for her through what is undoubtedly going to be a difficult journey,” Obama said.

The lawmakers who were in Giffords’ hospital room when she opened her eyes were three of her close female friends in Congress: House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.

“It felt like we were watching a miracle,” Wasserman Schultz told reporters traveling back to Washington with her on Air Force One. “The strength that you could see flowing out of her, it was like she was trying to will her eyes open.”

Giffords is expected to survive, although her condition and the extent of her recovery remain in doubt.

As finger-pointing emerged in Washington and beyond over whether harsh political rhetoric played a role in creating motivation for the attack, Obama sought to calm the rhetoric.

“Bad things happen,” he said, “and we must guard against simple explanations in the aftermath.”

He spoke of decency and goodness, declaring: “The forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.”

Obama’s appeal for civility played out against a deepening political debate. Earlier in the day, Republican Sarah Palin, criticized by some for marking Giffords’ district with the crosshairs of a gun sight during last fall’s campaign, had taken to Facebook to accuse pundits and journalists of using the attack to incite hatred and violence.

Obama spoke to a crowd of more than 13,000 in the arena and thousands more listened on from an overflow area in the football stadium. About a mile away, at University Medical Center, Giffords lay fighting for her life. Other victims also remained there hospitalized.

The memorial service was an important part of the mourning process for some of those who had lined up hours in advance to gain a seat.

“If we don’t say goodbye and have a chance to say goodbye in an appropriate way, it will linger,” said Patty Sirls, 62. “So, for me, it’s a closure.”

___

Gillian Flaccus in Tucson and Nancy Benac, Erica Werner and Jim Kuhnhenn in Washington contributed to this report. Feller reported from Washington.
Copyright © 2011

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9 Responses to "Obama to the nation: ‘We can be better than this’"

  1. Carl Nemo  January 13, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    Setting aside the grave circumstances of the gathering:

    “I believe we can be better,” …extract from article

    What’s this “we” crap?! It’s he and his administration that needs to do far better for our nation than demonstrated to date.

    He keeps building our presence in Afghanistan no doubt at the behest of his national security advisers who are nothing but running dogs for the MIC.

    We’re still in Iraq as ‘advisers’ to the tune of 50,000 troops.

    GITMO is still open with no plans to close it down.

    He and his ‘financial’ advisers rolled over like puppies to have their tummies scratched concerning the banking and insurance debacle while accomodating the financial gangsters at Goldman Sachs, AIG et al. interests fo the same stripe.

    He and his administration have been squandering or misappropriating large sums of the “Financial Rescue” package approximately three quarters of a trillion dollars with billions going down questionable job creation ‘ratholes’.

    Everything about he and his administration has become a nightmare. It’s just another version of eight years of the Bushistas ramping up the so-called ‘war on terror’, now costing 200 billion per annum which includes our incursions into the Middle East, Homeland Security, TSA and a host other questionable government inspired boondoggles giving little in return other than their high cost to maintain.

    The dangerous thing about this President is he’s a gifted orator, although I look upon him as simply a “silver-tongued devil” at this point in time. He can bring about the upwelling of tears and emotion in people, but once he leaves the podium and the ‘feelgood drug’ wears off you realize it’s still business as usual with “We the People” still as helpless and screwed over as ever.

    He’s an empty suit; ie., simply a ‘puppet’ for the shadowy oligarchs that own this nation lock, stock and barrel and their plans for us ain’t good for sure… : |

    Carl Nemo **==

  2. woody188  January 13, 2011 at 4:46 pm

    - Over 100,000 dead Iraqi civilians due to the “War on Terror” and the lie of WMD.

    - 9 out of 10 deaths due to Predator drones in Pakistan are innocent civilians. Over 250 Predator missions have been completed there.

    - Innocent people are arrested, tortured for years, and then released without any real evidence. Most are victims of rival tribes turning in their enemies for cash. More than half of those detained at GITMO for up to 7 years were released as innocent bystanders and for mistaken identity.

    - Almost 6 civilian people are killed and 8 are wounded each day in Afghanistan.

    “I believe we can be better”

    Indeed…let’s lead by example Mr. Obama.

  3. griff  January 13, 2011 at 7:37 pm

    “At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized — 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.”

    Alrighty then, Mr. President.

    Some one, any one, please Google “Obama Blames Republicans.” Isn’t that how his Oneness got elected? By blaming those who think differently than he does?

    Isn’t that what politics is all about these days? Blaming the other side for all our ills and then piling on more ills until we elect some one else who is really good at blaming the other side?

  4. Coastal Eddie  January 13, 2011 at 11:20 pm

    From the “outhouse”…
    “we can be better than this”,
    Erasing individual accountability to blame society,
    This has to go down as one of the most inappropriate and lamest statements ever made in public.

    • Carl Nemo  January 14, 2011 at 1:38 am

      Spot-on Coastal Eddie…!

      Welcome to CHB. : )

      Carl Nemo **==

  5. Carl Nemo  January 14, 2011 at 1:53 am

    It’s strange in that this comment posted only once to the board but registers twice on the home page for posts to the site? I’m sure I didn’t fatfinger “enter” twice.

    Carl Nemo **==

  6. eve  January 14, 2011 at 3:49 pm

    A few on this blog do understand how absurd the usage of the word “we” is when used in Obama’s quote.

    The great masses however, lack the critical thinking skills necessary to see the laughable inclusion of themselves into the equation.

    Next they’ll be saying something to the extent of “You’re either with us or you’re against us?”

    Oh wait………………

    • logtroll  January 14, 2011 at 11:18 pm

      “We” is a frenchie term for a computer machine that ya’ll can hook up to your teevee. My wife got one from her daughter and a friend is borrowing it now. The stuff on it is kind of challenging, so I guess you could say, “you’re either against we or you are with we”, but I don’t really understand what that means.

      So I guess it is absurd, in a way.

  7. Almandine  January 14, 2011 at 11:10 pm

    Think Better??? Do Better??? Be Better??? Without a doubt:

    http://neithercorp.us/npress/

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