Updated at 8:25 a.m. on January 13.
President Obama asked Americans tonight to step outside of themselves and see Saturday's shootings in Tucson, Ariz., from the perspective of a 9-year-old girl, Christina Taylor Green, an “A” student, gymnast, baseball fan, and born on 9/11, who woke up early Saturday morning because she was excited to see what a congressional event would be like.
By using the youngest victim of last week's rampage as his focal point, Obama made her America's cause and asked the nation to live lives as compassionate and caring as those felled by the gunman's bullets. Without wading into the who-coarsened-our-culture debate, he overshadowed it with a call to the better angels of our nature.
The mourning ceremony itself, organized by the University of Arizona, seemed discordantly at times like a political rally. The trumpets and timpani of Aaron Copeland’s "Fanfare For the Common Man" set the mood for an hour that included tears and cheers, where heroes were celebrated, where politics itself was honored, and where Obama was greeted by the university president as if he were a transcendent figure, rather than a mortal man. The early part of the president's speech was capped by a deviation from the text: "Today, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords opened her eyes for the first time." As he went through the list of victims, the president's tone was celebratory. They had all lived praiseworthy lives; each had something in them that we have in us. And then he got to Christina Taylor Green.
“Imagine: Here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that someday she too might play a part in shaping her nation’s future,” Obama said. “She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted.”
Obama’s peroration asked his audience to “live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us -- we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.”
Obama has had several moments to stand in for the collective expression of American grief. When, 14 months ago, comforting the families of those murdered at Fort Hood, Texas, he said “they belong to eternity.” Just two weeks earlier, he had made a midnight trip to Dover, Del., to greet the bodies of 18 Americans killed on a particularly horrific day in Afghanistan.
He has used each to urge Americans to slow down their thinking, their rush to judgments, and their rush to impose meaning on the senseless.
Mass shootings in America have become so common that they generally do not draw this type of attention. Conversely, political violence is rare. And political violence that has any connection to politics is rarer still. If a member of Congress hadn’t been the target Saturday, President Obama would not have been in Tucson tonight. His staff would be focusing on the State of the Union address. Congress would be debating a symbolic repeal of the 2010 health care law.
But within minutes of the first news alert about Saturday morning’s shopping mall shooting in Tucson, it seemed to Washington as if more than innocent people living somewhere else were the targets; no, the republic itself was under attack -- the anti-government denialist energy that swept dozens of members of Congress out of office had caused the grievous wounding of one more.
After the Fort Hood shooting, Republicans and conservatives urged the president to use his speech to draw attention to the growing threat to Americans by homegrown jihadists. The president did not.
And tonight, he would not lay blame, as many Democrats might have wished he would do, at the feet of Republicans. Instead, he accepted as fact that the past had been lived and focused on the now. “Already we’ve seen a national conversation commence, not only about the motivations behind these killings, but about everything from the merits of gun safety laws to the adequacy of our mental health systems. Much of this process, of debating what might be done to prevent such tragedies in the future, is an essential ingredient in our exercise of self-government,” he said.
“But 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.”
On both sides of the aisle, although particularly on the left, politicians and activists have observed how narrow the gap has become between what lunatics and hecklers say and what serious people argue. When liberal Democrats complain that the White House refuses to take on political fights, they’re arguing that by ceding the battle to Republicans, they are ceding the battle over whether the truth ultimately matters. Obama has so far refused to engage in this debate because he finds it unproductive and fraught with land mines. But when his party argues for civility these days, they are arguing that the president needs to lead a public movement against those who dehumanize their opponents, who actively seek to delegitimize government and who are casual with the truth.
There is a uniquely American variant of Judeo-Christian mourning language that all presidents and their speechwriters use to honor the dead, and it can effectively provide solace. “May God bless and keep those we’ve lost in restful and eternal peace. May he love and watch over the survivors. And may he bless the United States of America,” Obama said tonight.
After the Oklahoma City bombing, President Clinton grieved, and then minced no words, decrying the “loud and angry” voices “whose sole goal seems to be try to keep some people as paranoid and possible and the rest of us all torn up and upset with each other." These people, Clinton said, “leave the impression that, by their very words, that violence is acceptable.”
That “bitter” words can have consequences is undeniably true, and to bring it up, as many Democrats are, is not a “blood libel,” as Sarah Palin would have it, but an observation about the nature of political speech in a fractious democracy.
But with Timothy McVeigh, the public could draw a much more direct connection between a body of reactionary political thought and his act, which was aimed at a symbol of federal power (and all the innocent people who happened to be inside). The Saturday shooting was different.
It seems now, though we do not know for sure, that Giffords, long an advocate for the mentally ill, had been targeted by a young man who was sick in his head, who had no connection to organized politics, and who had been obsessed with her for years, well before the tea party movement was organized.
Every American shooting massacre has its iconography. For Tucson, there were two: the mug shot of the mentally ill young perpetrator, Jared Loughner, eyes bulging from their sockets, his pupils dilated in fear, and a wide smile less arrogant than pleased at some private accomplishment.
And then there is a photograph of Mark Kelly, gently but firmly gripping the resting hand of his wife, Gabrielle Giffords, a private act that speaks to both her suffering and his optimism about her recovery.
Obama added a third: we can think of Christina Taylor Green, paddling through the rain puddles in heaven, watching to see if we fulfill her expectations.
“On Saturday morning," Obama said, "Gabby, her staff, and many of her constituents gathered outside a supermarket to exercise their right to peaceful assembly and free speech. They were fulfilling a central tenet of the democracy envisioned by our founders -- representatives of the people answering to their constituents, so as to carry their concerns to our nation’s capital. Gabby called it 'Congress on Your Corner' -- just an updated version of government of and by and for the people.”
Here is an awesomely simple picture of what was lost on Saturday. Obama did not need to say anything else.
Breaking Down The Speech: A visual guide to the most used words in Obama's speech.
This article appears in the January 13, 2011, edition of NJ Daily.