News & Politics

Obama Makes a Moving Call for Civility Before 14,000 Gathered for Tragic Arizona Shooting

Speaking at a memorial service for those killed in the Tucson rampage, Obama called on Americans to stop laying blame and to act in love and kindness.

On a day marked by vitriol after a weekend marked by unspeakable violence, President Barack Obama this Wednesday called Americans to the better angels of their nature at a memorial service in Tucson for the victims of a rampage that left six dead and 14 wounded when a gunman targeted Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her constituents outside an Arizona supermarket. Obama's speech to some 14,000 gathered in a stadium at the University of Arizona will likely be seen by historians as a defining moment in his presidency.

Early in his speech, the president said that Giffords, shortly after his visit to her hospital room earlier in the day, had opened her eyes for the first time. Giffords' husband, Mark Kelly, sat with the First Lady and the president at the memorial service, and, said the president from the podium, gave Obama permission to share the news with the nation. "Gabby opened her eyes and she knows we’re here and she knows we love her and she knows that we will be rooting for her throughout what will be a difficult journey," he said. "We are there for her."

Then Obama got down to business, doing what he came to Arizona to do: tell everybody, from across the political spectrum, to tamp down the rhetoric.

There are no doubt those who chafe at the president's call to lay aside finger-pointing and his assertion that rhetoric did not cause the weekend's tragedy, especially in a political environment where calls to arms have become the new normal; an environment in which the president himself is often described by his opponents as a tyrant worthy of overthrow.

"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," Obama said, "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."

After quoting the Book of Job from the Hebrew Bible ("When I looked for light, I found darkness"), Obama continued: "For the truth is that none of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack. 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."

From 'Blood Libel' to 'Love Thy Neighbor'

The day in politics began with a video address from Sarah Palin, who finds herself incensed that liberals, in the wake of the shootings, keep citing a page on the Web site of her political action committee, as well as a pre-election tweet, as evidence of a poisoned political climate that appeared to affirm the violent impulses of Jared Loughner, the alleged mass murderer of the Tucson tragedy. At issue is a map posted on the SarahPAC Web site just before the midterm congressional elections that marked the PAC's targeted congressional districts, Gabrielle Giffords' district among them, with what appeared to be the crosshairs of a gun sight,  Then there was the tweet: "Don't retreat -- reload," came the directive from Palin's Twitter feed. In the video released by Palin on Wednesday, she accused her liberal critics of "blood libel," a term that evokes terrors suffered by European Jews in the Middle Ages.

Jewish leaders stepped forward to condemn Palin's comments. Right-wing pundits accused liberals of trying to outlaw metaphor and simile. Rhetorical mayhem ensued, just hours before Obama took the stage in Tucson.

It would have been gratifying to hear Obama condemn all the talk of "Second Amendment remedies" for uncooperative members of Congress, or of health care as tyranny, or of threats to the whites of Democrats' eyes. But at this moment when the country is rocked by an horrific act, that is not the president's job. His job is to calm the nation as a whole, to do his best to make it whole. So, he came not to praise our opprobrium, but to bury it. He came to praise the dead, and he did that and more, calling to mind the most appealing traits of each individual, traits in which we would like to see ourselves. He did the same for the wounded who are fighting for their lives.

In essence, Obama turned each individual into an iconic figure to whom anyone could relate. "In George and Dot [Morris], in Dorwin and Mavy [Stoddard], we sense the abiding love we have for our own husbands, our own wives, our own life partners. Phyllis [Schneck] – she’s our mom or grandma; Gabe [Zimmerman] our brother or son. In Judge [John] Roll, we recognize not only a man who prized his family and doing his job well, but also a man who embodied America’s fidelity to the law. In Gabby [Giffords], we see a reflection of our public-spiritedness, that desire to participate in that sometimes frustrating, sometimes contentious, but always necessary and never-ending process to form a more perfect union. And in Christina [Taylor Green]…in Christina we see all of our children. So curious, so trusting, so energetic and full of magic."

Then he called on all of us to honor their memory or suffering by being kinder to those who play those roles in our own lives -- and to extend that lovingkindness to all of the American family. It was a call to love. And then he went for the most tender of the heartstrings -- that one that resonates most deeply when we look at children, especially our own.

Invoking the memory of 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green as the nation's iconic child, he added, "So deserving of our love, and so deserving of our good example."

Now, to some, that may seem trite and naive. But if there was ever a moment when the world could use a little love, sweet love, it's now.

Politician or Preacher?

Some will say this was Obama the preacher, not Obama the politician. I say, not so fast. Think for a moment of the contrast between Obama's remarks tonight, and those that came of the mouth of the Republicans' most recent vice-presidential candidate. Who, this morning, looks more like a leader? Who sounds more like the kind of person most Americans would like to be?

The love Obama spoke of in Arizona is a cornerstone of Christian theology -- the love known as agape, an all-encompassing, altruistic kind of love. But Christian though he be, the Obama we saw tonight was as much a Taoist as a follower of Jesus. Taoism is the ancient Chinese philosophy rooted in the counter-play of yin and yang, of opposite and complementary forces, of the laws of cause and effect. (Sun Tzu's famous book, The Art of War, is a Taoist text.) It often prescribes flexibility and a yielding stance, not as the means to capitulation, but as the path to one's ultimate goal.

"For governing a country well," Lao-tzu wrote some 500 years before the birth of Jesus, "there is nothing better than moderation. The mark of a moderate man is freedom from his own ideas. Tolerant like the sky, all-pervading like sunlight, firm like a mountain, supple like a tree in the wind, he has no destination in view, and makes use of anything life happens to bring his way. Nothing is impossible for him. Because he has let go, he can care for the people's welfare as a mother cares for her child."  (FromStephen Mitchell's translation of Tao Te Ching.)

The word "Tao" is difficult to approximate in English; some translate it as "the Way," but it's also the source of all creation. Its texts caution against seeking revenge for its own sake, and urge leaders to facilitate comity among people as the best way to maintain power. "Rather than pointing fingers or assigning 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," Obama implored his listeners from the Arizona podium.

The Tao Te Ching advises, "Governing a large country is like frying a small fish. You spoil it with too much poking. Center your country in the Tao and evil will have no power. Not that it isn't there, but you'll be able to step out of its way."

“We may not be able to stop all evil in the world," Obama said, "but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us.”

E Pluribus Unum

Obama wasn't the only public figure reading scripture to those assembled at the memorial. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, the former Arizona governor, read from the Hebrew Bible. Attorney General Eric Holder read from the New Testament, from Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians. But the event didn't open with the standard sort of invocation, usually offered by a rabbi or Christian minister. It opened with a Yacqui blessing by an Arizona professor from that tribal nation, who called to the male energy of Father Sky and female energy of Mother Earth for blessing. Daniel Hernandez, the volunteer in Rep. Giffords' office who likely saved her life by ministering to her wounds until the emergency crews arrived, opened his own powerful remarks with the invocation of the nation's original motto: E pluribus unum: Out of many, one.

It was a fitting theme for the evening. Even in the spiritual traditions drawn upon throughout the service, acknowledged and tacit, the range of American belief was hinted at: Jewish, Christian, Native American -- and a thread throughout of an ancient, Eastern tradition. There, in an Arizona arena, America was at its best.


Adele Stan is AlterNet's Washington Bureau Chief.
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