13 Jan 2011

Arizona shooting: Obama urges healing

President Barack Obama leads a memorial to the victims of the Arizona shooting spree and urges Americans to debate “in a way that heals, not a way that wounds”, writes Sarah Smith.

President Obama had a very difficult job to do in Tucson last night, where just a few days earlier six people had been shot dead and Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords seriously injured by a gunman.

He had to get the tone just right. Not only did he have to offer both some comfort and some inspiration to a country that’s been sadly lacking in both for the last six days. He had to be a political leader who could rise above party politics.

Obama looked nervous before he spoke. Checking his notes, sipping water from a bottle. He is usually almost unnaturally composed so to see him even slightly anxious is unusual.


A lot of pundits and so-called experts had been warning all day the president should not even mention all the bitter partisan arguments over whether bitter partisan arguments were in any way to blame for causing the shooting. But it would have been hard for the president to ignore. The din is almost deafening and it’s certainly not doing anything to restore civility to political debate in America.

Arizona shooting: Obama urges healing

Obama tackled the controversy head on.

“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 to each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds,” he said.

Palin releases video

His words were quite a contrast with Sarah Palin‘s very defensive televised statement released earlier in the day. It’s not terribly hard to look more presidential than Sarah Palin. But her contribution had probably made it easy for Obama to appear as though he was one politician who is able to rise above politics on this occasion.

If there are rain puddles in heaven, Christina is jumping in them today. Obama pays tribute to shooting victim Christina Taylor Green

He said: “Rather than pointing the finger of blame let us 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 our hopes and dreams are bound together.”

He was genuinely emotional when talking about the nine year old girl, Christina Taylor Green, who was shot dead on Saturday, along with five other people. You could really see Obama as the father of two young girls and not just the Commander in Chief.

“If there are rain puddles in heaven, Christina is jumping in them today,” Obama said. “And here on Earth, we place our hands over our hearts, and commit ourselves as Americans to forging a country that is forever worthy of her gentle, happy spirit.”

Obama began his visit to Arizona by stopping at University Medical Centre to see Giffords, who survived a gunshot to the head.

Obama brought roars of approval from the estimated crowd of 14,000 people inside a University of Arizona arena by saying he had been told that, shortly after he and his wife, Michelle, had seen her, Giffords opened her eyes for the first time since the shooting.

Arizona shooting: Will politicians heed Obama's plea?

Pundits applaud

Even Fox News, the right wing 24 hour news channel who have been accused of contributing to the unpleasant political atmosphere, were very complimentary about the president’s performance. It remains to be seen whether Obama’s performance really will inspire a new tone in political discourse. But it’s clear the president has done himself no harm with this well judged performance.

Over the last couple of years Obama has been accused of having lost touch with the American public. The impressive speeches that helped get him elected have been missing from his presidency. His ability to speak directly to people seemed to have been lost.

There was nothing in Obama’s performance that suggested he was using this occasion as a political opportunity. But his sincere and well judged performance sounded a lot more like the president his supporters hoped he would be when they voted for him two years ago.