TUCSON (CN) – Addressing a crowd of 14,000 at the University of Arizona, with thousands more watching a telecast at a nearby football stadium, President Obama urged the nation to “expand our moral imaginations,” as he remembered the six people slain by the Glock-wielding killer who also shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in the head. The president visited Giffords in the hospital after arriving in Tucson Wednesday. “Right after we went to visit, a few minutes after we left her room and some of her colleagues from Congress were in the room, Gabby opened her eyes for the first time,” the president said.
“Gabby opened her eyes for the first time. Gabby opened her eyes. 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 spoke at length about the victims and their families, and he praised those who helped at the scene and those who subdued the accused gunman, 22-year-old Jared Loughner.
Loughner is in federal custody in Phoenix, charged with the attempted assassination of a member of Congress, and the murders of U.S. District Chief Judge John Roll and Giffords staff member Gabriel Zimmerman. He also faces attempted murder charges for shooting Giffords staffers Pamela Simon and Ron Barber.
On Wednesday, 9th Circuit Chief Judge Alex Kozinski tapped U.S. District Judge Larry A. Burns of San Diego to handle the case.
President Obama urged the nation to forsake politics, blame and finger-pointing, and to “sharpen our instincts for empathy.”
“For the truth is, none of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack,” he 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. Yes, we have to examine all the facts behind this tragedy. We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence. We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of such violence in the future.
“But what we cannot do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other. That we cannot do. That we cannot do. 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’s 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 that our hopes and dreams are bound together.”
Those who made it into the 14,000-seat McKale Memorial Center were subjected to what university officials called “airport-like security.” Posters, signs, backpacks and laptops were prohibited. Secret Service and local and state police showed a heavy presence.
Hopeful attendees lined up early in the morning for the 6 p.m. event to secure a seat inside the auditorium. By about 2 p.m. university officials announced that only those already in line would get a seat. They estimated that more than 26,000 people attended the event.
“As soon as I heard Monday that the president was going to come in for a memorial service, I thought it would be a good thing for the family to come out and do,” said Tucson resident Jeff Matthews, who stood in line for more than 2 hours with his wife and son. “This thing this weekend was a really big deal. But time heals all wounds, you know; people get stronger from things like this – you never forget them, but I think the good will prevail out this.”
The long, snaking line leading into the stadium had a quiet, somber tone. Some wore traditional black suits and dresses, while many others wore jeans or shorts and flip-flops.
“This is a time for Tucson to heal,” said Alma Alvarez, who waited in line for several hours. “We may not all agree politically, but it’s a time for all of us to come together and share our grief and come out of it as one city.”
Here is a link to the president’s speech.