TUCSON, Ariz. – Reflection and remembrance capped with a message of hope marked Wednesday’s memorial at the University of Arizona to pay homage to the six people killed and 13 wounded in the Jan. 8 attempted assassination of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
More than 26,000 people filled the basketball stadium to capacity and overflowed into the football stadium next door. They heard warm, comforting words from President Barack Obama, who paid touching tribute to each of the dead.
But Obama, known for his eloquence, departed from his role as comforter-in-chief to become, if only for a moment, a newsman: He revealed that shortly after he visited her Wednesday afternoon at the University Medical Center, Giffords, who suffered a severe brain injury from being shot in the head at point blank range by alleged assailant Jared Loughner, had opened her eyes for the first time.
To the joy of the 26,000, Obama said, “She knows we’re here, and she knows we love her.”
Obama noted that the Jan. 8 attack has sparked “a national conversation” about the motivations behind the murders and about issues ranging from the merits of gun safety laws to the adequacy of the nation’s mental health system.
Obama dwelled on the increasingly angry tenor of national discourse. “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,” he said.
Daniel Hernandez, the young intern widely credited with saving Giffords’ life through his quick action, was hailed as a hero despite his assertion to the contrary.
“On Saturday, we all became Tucsonans, Arizonans and Americans,” Hernandez told the crowd, citing the men who threw the attacker to the ground, the elderly woman who grabbed the ammunition, the first responders and University Medical Center staff as the true heroes. “I reject the term hero.”
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, University of Arizona President Robert Shelton and U.S. Homeland Security Secretary and former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano also spoke at the service.
Brewer said the shooting “pierced our sense of well-being.” She added that the incident has raised questions for which answers will take time to come. However, she also offered hope: “Arizona is united in a mission of recovery,” she said. “This state, bound together by prayer and action, hope and faith, will not be shredded by one madman’s act of darkness.”
None of the speakers uttered Loughner’s name.
Obama’s tributes to the dead included an especially warm mention of Christina Green, the 9-year-old who was a third-grader at Palo Verde Elementary School in Tucson: “In Christina, we see all of our children; so curious, so trusting, so energetic and full of magic.”
She was born on September 11, 2001, and was once featured in a book about the 9/11 babies. “On either side of her photo in that book were simple wishes for a child’s life,” Obama said.