TUCSON, Ariz.-Usually a night at McKale Center on the campus of the University of Arizona means cheering for the Wildcats basketball team. Perhaps that's why when President Obama spoke to the crowd of more than 14,000, made up mostly of students, about the tragic shooting on Jan. 8 that left six people dead and 14, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, wounded, the atmosphere was more celebratory than sorrowful.
During the program titled "Together We Thrive: Tucson and America," several speakers turned to the Bible for words of hope and comfort. Secretary of Homeland Security and former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano personally chose Isaiah 40 for the occasion, finishing with lines, "But those who wait on the LORD Shall renew their strength; They shall mount up with wings like eagles, They shall run and not be weary, They shall walk and not faint."
When, during his reading from 2 Corinthians 4, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder came to the verse, "For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison," many in the packed gymnasium wiped away tears.
But it was the president's remarks that earned the most response from the crowd, obliging him to pause frequently to accommodate shouts and applause. Beginning his speech with Psalm 46:4-5, he first spoke words of mourning and remembrance for the six people who lost their lives in the incident-Judge John Roll, Dorothy Morris, Phyllis Schneck, Dorwan Stoddard, Gabe Zimmerman, and Christina Taylor Green-then encouraged prayers for the quick recovery of the wounded.
Obama also used Scripture to help him address the national debate about the cause of the tragedy, saying, "In the words of Job, 'when I looked for light, then came darkness.' Bad things happen, and we must guard against simple explanations in the aftermath."
During his 34-minute speech, the president asked Americans not to turn on each other, saying, "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."
Some of his remarks seemed intended to chastise those like Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik who, in the aftermath of the shooting, claimed that vitriol on the part of right-wing talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh may have motivated alleged shooter Jared Loughner. "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," asserted Obama, emphasizing those last three words that weren't in his prepared remarks. "But rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation in a way that would make them proud."
After days of rancor, prominent conservatives expressed their appreciation for the president's words. "[He] turned in a magnificent performance," wrote National Review editor Rich Lowry immediately after he speech. "This was a non-accusatory, genuinely civil, case for civility, in stark contrast to what we've read and heard over the last few days. . . . Well done." Fox News contributor and syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer also approved the president's performance, saying, "The emphasizing of the innocence and idealism of [9-year-old victim Christina Taylor Green] and saying that is the reason we ought to act in a new and civil way was quite remarkable and extremely effective."
The emotional high point of the evening came when Obama reported on the condition of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords from his visit with her earlier in the day. "Gabby opened her eyes for the first time," he said to raucous cheers and a standing ovation. "She knows we are here, she knows we love her, and she knows we are rooting for her."