TUCSON, Ariz. — In an appeal for national unity and soul-searching after the Tucson shootings, President Barack Obama on Wednesday night urged Americans to "expand our moral imaginations" and "sharpen our instincts for empathy" — even with those who are political adversaries.
"What we cannot do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other," he declared in a speech that was frequently interrupted by applause and cheers from the audience.
He spoke at at a memorial service for those killed in a weekend massacre that left Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., gravely wounded. The shooting also killed six people and wounded 13.
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In an electrifying moment, Obama revealed that Giffords, who was shot in the head, had opened her eyes for the first time. Obama and first lady Michelle Obama had visited the wounded lawmaker in her room, and he said that shortly after they left: "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 ...."
Mark Kelly, Giffords' husband, sat beside the Obamas during the ceremony.
Using the shootings to address the nation's spiritual state, the president decried the small-minded nature of political debate. "If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let's make sure it's worthy of those we have lost. Let's make sure it's not on the usual plane of politics and point scoring and pettiness that drifts away in the next news cycle."
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 happen to think differently than we do," Obama said, the killings should make Americans ask themselves "Have we shown enough kindness and generosity and compassion to people in our lives?"
He referred to the people killed on Saturday as members of "an American family, 300 million strong." And he added, "Let’s make sure it's worthy of those we have lost," he said.
'They help me believe'
"Those who died here, those who saved lives here — they help me believe," Obama told the crowd. "We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us."
"As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility," the president said. "Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let's use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully... and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together...."
In contrast with his speech at a memorial service after Nidal Hasan's killing spree at Fort Hood, Texas in 2009, Obama did not mention the suspect in this case, Jared Lee Loughner.
He did refer to the Tucson gunman by saying, "None of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack. None of us can know with any certainty what might have stopped these shots from being fired or what thoughts lurked in the inner recesses of a violent man's mind."
"For what he has done, we know that the killer will be met with justice — in this world, and the next," Obama said in his Fort Hood speech.Video: Obama: Gifford opened her eyes for the first time (on this page)
Police say Loughner shot Giffords and many in the line of people waiting to talk with her during a constituent event outside a Safeway store on Saturday. The attack ended when bystanders tackled the gunman. Loughner is in jail facing federal charges.
In her remarks earlier in the memorial service, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer thanked Obama for coming to Arizona. “Your words have been a source of comfort and strength to every Arizonan. Your presence today serves as a reminder that we are not alone in our sorrow.”
“This state, bound together by prayer and action and hope and faith, will not be shredded by one madman’s act of darkness,” she said.Story: Obama: 'Heroism is here'
She quoted St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans, saying that the people of Arizona would remain “rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation.”
Obama eulogizes each person killed
Obama's speech, by turns somber and hopeful, at times took on the tone of an exuberant pep rally as he heralded the men who wrestled the gunman to the ground, the woman who grabbed the shooter's ammunition, the doctors and nurses who treated the injured, the intern who rushed to Giffords' aid. The crowd erupted in multiple standing ovations as each was singled out for praise. The president ended up speaking for more than half an hour, doubling the expected length of his comments.
He eulogized each of the people who were killed: federal Judge John Roll; Dorothy Morris, whose husband, George, was wounded; Phyllis Schneck; Dorwan Stoddard, who died shielding his wife, Mavy, from the gunfire; Gabe Zimmerman, Gifford's outreach director; and, finally, 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green.Video: Obama calls for unity in Tucson (on this page)
Obama said that Christina "showed an appreciation for life uncommon for a girl her age, and would remind her mother, "We are so blessed. We have the best life." And she'd pay those blessings back by participating in a charity that helped children who were less fortunate."
Christina had just been elected to the student council at her elementary school and had an emerging interest in public service.
"I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it," Obama said. The little girl was born on Sept. 11, 2001, and had been featured in a book about 50 babies born that day. The inscriptions near her photo spoke of wishes for a happy child's life, including splashing in puddles.
Said Obama: "If there are rain puddles in heaven, Christina is jumping in them today."Video: Obama's full speech: 'Listen to each other more carefully' (on this page)
An estimated 13,000 people crowded into the basketball arena at the McKale Memorial Center for the ceremony, hugging and consoling each other before it began. People cheered when survivors or families of the victims arrived. Another 13,000 who could not be accommodated inside instead watched the service on television at Arizona Stadium.
Among the people attending the ceremony were Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl of Arizona, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, and other local and national figures.Story: Arizona shooting victims
Daniel Hernandez, a 20-year-old intern on Giffords' staff, was honored as a hero for his actions after the attack credited with possibly saving Giffords' life. Hernandez rejected the hero tag, instead recognizing emergency workers who rushed to help victims.
Afterward, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, former governor of Arizona, and Attorney General Eric Holder read from the Bible.
A bipartisan delegation of lawmakers, including Rep. Ben Quayle, R-Ariz., accompanied Obama on Air Force One in a sign of solidarity. Quayle had called Obama the "worst president in history."
Upon his arrival in Arizona, Obama headed straight to Rep. Giffords' bedside.Video: Pal: Mug shot shows ‘monster,’ not Loughner
Inside the intensive care unit at the hospital, Obama spent about 10 minutes with Giffords and her husband. He also met with four other victims wounded in the shooting, including two of Giffords' staff members. The president and the first lady also met with members of the trauma resuscitation team who were the first people to treat the victims.
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Dr. Peter Rhee, chief of the trauma unit, led the Obamas' 45-minute visit to the hospital.
On Capitol Hill earlier in the day, Giffords' House colleagues praised her and the other shooting victims and insisted that violence would not silence democracy.
"We will have the last word," declared new House Speaker John Boehner, fighting back tears as he described Giffords' battle to recover.
Msnbc.com writers Tom Curry and Jeff Black and The Associated Press contributed to this report.