Calling for a paradigm shift in social and political discourse and action, U.S. President Barack Obama said Wednesday night’s event was meant to be a moment of acknowledgement, remembrance, healing and hope for what he said is a nationwide community in mourning.
Obama spoke during "Together We Thrive: Tucson and America" after visiting the Jan. 8 shooting victims and their families at University Medical Center, where he said Rep. Gabrielle Giffords “opened her eyes for the very first time.”
“Our hearts are broken by their sudden passing. Our hearts are broken, and yet our hearts also have reason for fullness,” Obama said. “Our hearts are full of hope.”
The mass shooting occurred outside a Safeway grocery store located on Tucson's northwest side. Among those killed were U.S. District Judge John Roll, 63; Giffords' director of community outreach, Gabe Zimmerman, 30; and 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green.
“There is nothing I can say that will fill the sudden hole that is torn in your hearts, but notice that the hopes of the nation are here tonight,” Obama said. “We mourn with you for the fallen, we join you in your grief, we add our faith to yours. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the other living victims of this tragedy will pull through.”
Several others were injured in the shooting. Giffords remains in critical condition at UMC.
“They gathered on a Saturday to constitute their right to peaceful assembly and free speech,” Obama said. “They were fulfilling a central tenant of a democracy and vision by our founders. Gabby (Giffords) called it 'Congress on Your Corner,' an updated version of government of and by and for the people. And that quintessentially American scene, that was the scene that was shattered by a gunman’s bullets.”
And it can be restored, Obama said, speaking to more than 13,100 in attendance at the UA’s McKale Memorial Center with an additional 13,000 seated in Arizona Stadium watching via a video feed.
But it requires a shift that demands more civility to bypass the “forces that divide” the community and nation, he added. In particular, such a time calls for “reflecting on the present and the future and the ways in which we manage our lives and nurture the relationships with those who are still with us."
Obama’s speech often yielded applause and standing ovations, transforming an at-first solemn audience into a jubilant crowd as he spoke fondly with reference of the victims and “heroes” who came to their aid.
UA President Robert N. Shelton opened the evening, welcoming each of the speakers, and noting that it was a time to “reaffirm our commitment to each other” while remembering those lost and others in recovery.
“Tonight, we’ve gathered to mourn a tragic and senseless loss,” Shelton said.
“We are here to try, in a small way, to bring comfort to those whose lives have been forever changed by an act so heinous,” he added. “Tucson is a city that is unique for its diversity and for its passion. Fortunately, we have great leadership to help us through these challenging times.”
Speaker after speaker paid tribute to the shooting victims while also speaking about hope and healing for the future.
“I had the opportunity to interact with Gabby (Giffords) and her staff as an intern to gain a sense of appreciation and inspiration for public service in its most genuine form,” said Emily Fritze, president of the UA’s Associated Students of the University of Arizona.
“I believe she would want us to continue to be devoted public servants and citizens,” Fritze said. “We know our community will not be silenced and we know our representatives will not be silenced.”
“We know that the violence that occurred Saturday does not represent this community, this state or this country,” said U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, former Arizona governor.
What does represent the community, however, are the courageous acts of the likes of UA junior Daniel Hernandez Jr. It was his “very uncommon courage that likely saved Gabby Giffords life,” said Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer.
Hernandez said he would “humbly reject” the status of “hero” – to which Obama later reinforced upon him.
Despite the tragedy, Hernandez – and others who spoke – said “glimmers of hope” have surfaced since the events of Saturday.
“On Saturday, we all became Tucsonans, we all became Arizonans and above all, we all became Americans,” Hernandez said. “We all have to come to realize that what binds us is not the differences, but that we are all together and we are all family. We are all Americans.”
Among the more than 26,000 people at the event was Briana Esquivel, who visited with her family.
The high school freshman said she was especially struck by the events because she has a sister about the same age as Green.
Esquivel said she wanted an end to the "talk of hate," saying also that she hoped Obama's arrival would help the community. "It has been really tough for a lot of people," she said.
One of her friends, Breanna Gonzalez, said she had mixed emotions about Obama's arrival. "I felt really excited, but I salso felt the pain; at the same time sadness," said Gonzalez, who is in the 8th grade.
Another person who arrived at McKale was Max Morris, who is employed at the Safeway where the shooting occurred, but said he had that day off.
"That's your second family," Morris said about his colleagues. As a tribute to the victims, he built a memorial that he attached to his bicycle, then drove it around Wednesday in advance of the evening service.
About Obama's visit, Morris said: "He is not going to make the tragedy better, but something needs to change, especially with the way society is going."
Kaila Owens attended with her friend, Jocelyn Coffaro. Both high school seniors in Marana, the two said they were eager to hear would Obama would say.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Owens said. "And he has to address what has happened. I hope people don't see it as a negative. We need to stay together."
Obama spoke to their words, almost to the exact.
To do so, he spent considerable time speaking about Green whom he described as an A student, dancer, swimmer and gymnast who “showed an appreciation of life uncommon for a girl her age.” She also had just been elected to her school’s student council.
“Imagine for a moment, here was a young girl who is just becoming aware of our democracy, just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship, just starting to get the fact that she plays some part in shaping her nation’s future,” Obama said.
“I want to live up to her expectations. I want democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined us. All of us, we should do everything we can do to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations," he added.
In Green “we see all of our children -- so curious, so trusting, so energetic and full of magic, so deserving of love and so deserving of our good example,” Obama said, as Michelle Obama held tears in her eyes.
“In our debates, let’s make sure we are worthy of those we have lost. Let’s make sure that we not fall into the usual plane of politics and the score-point pettiness that drifts away in the next new cycle,” Obama said. “But let’s strive to be better in our private lives, be better friends, better co-workers and better neighbors.”
In doing so, he added, “our task is working together to consistently widen the circle of our concern so that we bequeath the American dream to future generations. They believe, and I believe, that we can do better.”