• U.S.

Obama Seeks Unity Over Divisive Rhetoric

5 minute read
Michael Scherer

Friends of the accused killer, Jared Lee Loughner, keep using the same words to guess at his reasons for gunning down a Congresswoman, several retirees and a 9-year-old girl in a Safeway parking lot. “He loves causing chaos,” a former target-shooting buddy told one reporter. “Mainly to just promote chaos,” echoed a high school pal.

On Wednesday night, President Obama addressed Loughner’s alleged crime before a crowd of 14,000 in Tucson, Ariz. The speech was watched by millions of Americans, whose prime-time network reality dramas had been pre-empted by a jarring reality far more consequential. In the living rooms of the nation, the President’s message boiled down to this: Loughner had failed.

(See TIME’s photo-essay “Mourning the Victims of the Arizona Shooting.”)

Rather than chaos, the crime, in Obama’s telling, reminded us all of the need to refocus on the order that holds together this country’s tattered public life and its citizens’ most treasured private relationships. “Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let’s use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations,” Obama said, sounding at times like a preacher, at times like a father and at times like the President, “to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy and remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together.”

The crowd before Obama was littered with wet eyes and spotted with heroes and dignitaries, including several politicians who had, just months earlier, been his daily foes. From the podium, the President recognized an elderly woman in the audience, Patricia Maische, who had tried to wrestle away the gunman’s bullets. He pointed out the awkward congressional intern, Daniel Hernandez, who had acted without any self-doubt to stanch the blood coming from his boss Gabrielle Giffords’ head. He acknowledged the trauma-care doctors who had saved the lives of most of the wounded.

“We are reminded that, in the fleeting time we have on this earth, what matters is not wealth, or status, or power, or fame,” Obama continued, “but rather how well we have loved and what small part we have played in making the lives of other people better.”

(See “Tucson Tries to Recover Civility and Peace.”)

When Obama announced that the injured Congresswoman had opened her eyes for the first time on Wednesday, her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, nearly lost it. Sitting in the front row, he grabbed the fists of First Lady Michelle Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and squeezed hard to hold back the tears. In the audience, a woman held up a sign: “We Will Heal.”

“For those who were harmed, those who were killed, they are part of our family, an American family, 300 million strong,” the President said.

Historically, U.S. Presidents have been called upon to be counselors in times of national grief. Ronald Reagan spoke movingly from the Oval Office after the space shuttle Challenger exploded in midflight. Bill Clinton addressed a black-tie audience in 1995 to commemorate those killed in the Oklahoma City bombing. George W. Bush called through a bullhorn from the rubble of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Obama’s condolences were offered in his own style, and they were not completely devoid of politics. The venue, a stadium filled with college kids, called to mind the massive crowds he addressed during the presidential campaign. Calls like “We love you, Obama” and “Michelle, we love your husband,” punctuated the ceremony.

(See a brief history of presidential mourning.)

Perhaps in response to the lingering falsehoods about his religious beliefs, Obama twice quoted the Bible, and was preceded to the microphones by two Cabinet Secretaries who also read from Scripture. And Obama offered a pointed brushback to those in the liberal and conservative press who have tried to gain advantage from the shootings. “It’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that — that heals, not in a way that wounds,” he said.

But the best parts of the speech left politics behind completely. When he spoke of Christina Green, the murdered 9-year-old girl, he spoke as the father of a 9-year-old himself, his voice straining a bit. “If there are rain puddles in heaven, Christina is jumping in them today,” he said. This was his point, after all: that we are all just parents, or children, or spouses, all of us just Americans. He wanted us to use this time to remember this fact, and to order our lives accordingly.

For all the speculation about political motives in the wake of the massacre, it was this sense of order that may have been the real target of the Jan. 8 killer. And while some have been hurt, and others killed, Obama made clear four days later that those bullets shattered nothing.

— With additional reporting by Alex Altman and Katy Steinmetz / Tucson

See TIME’s complete coverage of the Tucson shooting.

See Sarah Palin’s response to the Tucson massacre.

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