Video: Obama: 'What we can't do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other.'

NBC News
updated 1/12/2011 11:13:12 PM ET 2011-01-13T04:13:12

Remarks of President Barack Obama, as delivered Wednesday at the "Together We Thrive" memorial service for the victims of the Jan. 8 attack on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords that killed six and wounded 13, including the congresswoman:

"To the families of those we've lost; to all who called them friends; to the students of this university, the public servants gathered tonight, and the people of Tucson and Arizona: I have come here tonight as an American who, like all Americans, kneels to pray with you today, and will stand by you tomorrow.

"There is nothing I can say that will fill the sudden hole torn in your hearts. But know this: the hopes of a nation are here tonight. We mourn with you for the fallen. We join you in your grief. And we add our faith to yours that Representative Gabrielle Giffords and the other living victims of this tragedy pull through.

"As Scripture tells us:

'There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.
God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day.'

"On Saturday morning, 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.

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"That is the quintessentially American scene that was shattered by a gunman's bullets. And the six people who lost their lives on Saturday — they too represented what is best in America.

"Judge John Roll served our legal system for nearly 40 years. A graduate of this university and its law school, Judge Roll was recommended for the federal bench by John McCain 20 years ago, appointed by President George H.W. Bush, and rose to become Arizona's chief federal judge. His colleagues described him as the hardest-working judge within the Ninth Circuit. He was on his way back from attending Mass, as he did every day, when he decided to stop by and say hi to his representative. John is survived by his loving wife, Maureen, his three sons, and his five grandchildren.

"George and Dorothy Morris — "Dot" to her friends — were high school sweethearts who got married and had two daughters. They did everything together, traveling the open road in their RV, enjoying what their friends called a 50-year honeymoon. Saturday morning, they went by the Safeway to hear what their congresswoman had to say. When gunfire rang out, George, a former Marine, instinctively tried to shield his wife. Both were shot. Dot passed away.

"A New Jersey native, Phyllis Schneck retired to Tucson to beat the snow. But in the summer, she would return East, where her world revolved around her 3 children, 7 grandchildren, and 2 year-old great-granddaughter. A gifted quilter, she'd often work under her favorite tree, or sometimes sew aprons with the logos of the Jets and the Giants to give out at the church where she volunteered. A Republican, she took a liking to Gabby, and wanted to get to know her better.

"Dorwan and Mavy Stoddard grew up in Tucson together — about seventy years ago. They moved apart and started their own respective families, but after both were widowed they found their way back here, to, as one of Mavy's daughters put it, "be boyfriend and girlfriend again." When they weren't out on the road in their motor home, you could find them just up the road, helping folks in need at the Mountain Avenue Church of Christ. A retired construction worker, Dorwan spent his spare time fixing up the church along with their dog, Tux. His final act of selflessness was to dive on top of his wife, sacrificing his life for hers.

"Everything Gabe Zimmerman did, he did with passion — but his true passion was people. As Gabby's outreach director, he made the cares of thousands of her constituents his own, seeing to it that seniors got the Medicare benefits they had earned, that veterans got the medals and care they deserved, that government was working for ordinary folks. He died doing what he loved — talking with people and seeing how he could help. Gabe is survived by his parents, Ross and Emily, his brother, Ben, and his fiancée, Kelly, who he planned to marry next year.

"And then there is nine year-old Christina Taylor Green. Christina was an A student, a dancer, a gymnast, and a swimmer. She often proclaimed that she wanted to be the first woman to play in the major leagues, and as the only girl on her Little League team, no one put it past her. She showed an appreciation for life uncommon for a girl her age, and she 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.

"Our hearts are broken by their sudden passing. Our hearts are broken — and yet, our hearts also have reason for fullness.

"Our hearts are full of hope and thanks for the 13 Americans who survived the shooting, including the congresswoman many of them went to see on Saturday.

I have just come from the University Medical Center, just a mile from here, where our friend Gabby courageously fights to recover even as we speak. And I want to tell you — her husband Mark is here and he allows me to share this with you — right after we went to visit, a few minutes after we left her room and some of her colleagues in Congress were in the room, Gabby opened her eyes for the first time. Gabby opened her eyes for the first time. 

So I can tell you, she knows we are here and she knows we love her and she knows that we will be rooting for her throughout what undoubtedly will be a difficult journey. We are there for her.

"And our hearts are full of gratitude for those who saved others.

We are grateful to Daniel Hernandez, a volunteer in Gabby's office. And, Daniel, I'm sorry, you may deny it, but we've decided you are a hero because you ran through the chaos to minister to your boss, and tended to her wounds and helped keep her alive.

We are grateful for the men who tackled the gunman as he stopped to reload. We are grateful for petite Patricia Maisch, who wrestled away the killer's ammunition, and undoubtedly saved some lives. And we are grateful for the doctors and nurses and first responders who worked wonders to heal those who'd been hurt. We are grateful to them.

"These men and women remind us that heroism is found not only on the fields of battle. They remind us that heroism does not require special training or physical strength. Heroism is here,  in the hearts of so many of our fellow citizens, all around us,, just waiting to be summoned — as it was on Saturday morning.

"Their actions, their selflessness, poses a challenge to each of us. It raises the question of what, beyond the prayers and expressions of concern, is required of us going forward. How can we honor the fallen? How can we be true to their memory?

"You see, when a tragedy like this strikes, it is part of our nature to demand explanations — to try to impose some order on the chaos, and make sense out of that which seems senseless. 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.

"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.

"Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding. In the words of Job, "when I looked for light, then came darkness." Bad things happen, and we must guard against simple explanations in the aftermath.

"For the truth is 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. Yes, we have to examine all the facts behind this tragedy. We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence. We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of such violence in the future.

"But what we can't do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another. That we cannot do. That we cannot do. As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. 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.

"After all, that's what most of us do when we lose somebody in our family — especially if the loss is unexpected. We're shaken out of our routines, and forced to look inward. We reflect on the past. Did we spend enough time with an aging parent, we wonder. Did we express our gratitude for all the sacrifices they made for us? Did we tell a spouse just how desperately we loved them, not just once in a while but every single day?

"So sudden loss causes us to look backward — but it also forces us to look forward, to reflect on the present and the future, on the manner in which we live our lives and nurture our relationships with those who are still with us.

"We may ask ourselves if we've shown enough kindness and generosity and compassion to the people in our lives. Perhaps we question whether we are doing right by our children, or our community, and whether our priorities are in order. We recognize our own mortality, and are reminded that in the fleeting time we have on this Earth, what matters is not wealth, or status, or power, or fame — but rather, how well we have loved, and what small part we have played in making the lives of other people better.

"That process of reflection, of making sure we align our values with our actions — that, I believe, is what a tragedy like this requires. For those who were harmed, those who were killed — they are part of our family, an American family 300 million strong. We may not have known them personally, but surely we see ourselves in them. In George and Dot, in Dorwan and Mavy, we sense the abiding love we have for our own husbands, our own wives, our own life partners. Phyllis — she's our mom or grandma; Gabe, our brother or son. In Judge 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. And in Gabby, in Gabby, we see a reflection of our public spiritedness, and 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 … in Christina we see all of our children. So curious, so trusting, so energetic and full of magic.

"So deserving of our love.

"And so deserving of our good example. 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.

"The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better. To be better in our private lives, to be better friends and neighbors and co-workers and parents. And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their death helps usher in more civility in our public discourse, let us remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy — it did not — but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make them proud.

"It should be civil because we want to live up to the example of public servants like John Roll and Gabby Giffords, who knew first and foremost that we are all Americans, and that we can question each other's ideas without questioning each other's love of country, and that our task, working together, is to constantly widen the circle of our concern so that we bequeath the American dream to future generations.

"They believed — they believed and I believe we can be better. Those who died here, those who saved life here — they help me believe. We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another, that's entirely up to us. And I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.

""That's what I believe, in part because that's what a child like Christina Taylor Green believed.

"Imagine, imagine for a moment: 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 some day she, too, might play a part in shaping her nation's future. She had been elected to her student council; she saw public service as something exciting, something hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model. 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.

"I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. All of us — we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children's expectations.

"As has already been mentioned, Christina was given to us on September 11th, 2001, one of 50 babies born that day to be pictured in a book called "Faces of Hope." On either side of her photo in that book were simple wishes for a child's life. 'I hope you help those in need,' read one. 'I hope you know all of the words to the National Anthem and sing it with your hand over your heart. I hope you jump in rain puddles.'

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

"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."

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Photos: Former Ariz. Representative Gabrielle Giffords

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  1. Gabrielle Giffords, the former congresswoman who was shot and left handicapped after a gunman opened fire at an event in Tucson, Ariz., and her husband retired Navy Capt. Mark Kelly prepare to testify before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun violence in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 2013. (Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, leave the Newtown Municipal Building in Newtown, Conn. on Jan. 4, 2013. Giffords met with Newtown officials on Friday afternoon before heading to visit with families of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. (Michelle Mcloughlin / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Gabrielle Giffords waves to the Space Shuttle Endeavor with her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly as it flies over Tucson, Ariz. on its way to Los Angeles, on Sept. 20, 2012. Kelly served as Endeavour's last space commander months after Giffords survived serious head injuries because of a 2011 shooting. (P.K. Weis / Southwest Photo Bank via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Gabrielle Giffords blows a kiss after reciting the Pledge of Allegiance during the final session of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. on Sept. 6, 2012. (Eric Thayer / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Gabrielle Giffords stands on top of a peak in the French Alps with her husband Mark Kelly, right,, and mountain guide Vincent Lameyre, July 23, 2012. On her first trip out of the country since her injury in 2011, she rode a two-stage cable car to a station for spectacular views of Mont Blanc. (Denis Balibouse / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Ron Barber, right, celebrates his victory with Giffords, left, prior to speaking to supporters at a post election event, Tuesday, June 12, 2012, in Tucson, Ariz. Barber, Giffords' former district director, won her seat in a special election after she resigned to focus on her recovery. (Ross D. Franklin / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Democratic Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, read Rep. Gabriell Giffords resignation speech on the House floor on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012. The day after President Obama's State of the Union speech, Giffords formally offered her resignation to Speaker John Boehner. Weeping, Shultz applauded the strength of her friend and colleague, "I'm so proud of my friend." (MSNBC) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. President Barack Obama hugs retiring Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords as the president arrives to deliver his State of the Union address on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012. (Pool / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., left, and Pelosi, right, posing with Giffords husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly of the Navy, at his retirement ceremony with Vice President Joe Biden in the Old Executive Office Building on the White House complex in Washington, Thursday, Oct. 6, 2011. (House Leader Nancy Pelosi's office / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords returns to the House for the first time since she was shot, making a dramatic entrance on Monday, Aug. 1, 2011, during a crucial debt vote. She drew loud applause and cheers from surprised colleagues. (NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords poses for a photo the day after the launch of NASA space shuttle Endeavour and the day before she had her cranioplasty surgery, outside TIRR Memorial Hermann Hospital May 17, in Houston, Texas. Aides of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords posted two recent photos of the congresswoman to her public Facebook page, the first since the January 8 shooting that killed six people and wounded a dozen others. (P.K. Weis / Giffords Campaign / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Emergency workers use a stretcher to move Rep. Gabrielle Giffords after she was shot in the head outside a shopping center in Tucson, Ariz., on Saturday, Jan. 8, 2011. (James Palka / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. In this Jan. 5, 2011 file photo, House Speaker John Boehner re-enacts the swearing in of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Susan Walsh / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Rep. Giffords, left, speaks during a candidates debate with Republican candidate Jesse Kelly at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Ariz., on Oct. 18, 2010. Kelly is an Iraq War veteran and was the Tea Party favorite for the 8th congressional district seat. (Joshua Lott / The New York Times via Redux Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords meets with constituents in Douglas, Ariz., in 2010. Giffords, 40, took office in January 2007, emphasizing issues such as immigration reform, embryonic stem-cell research, alternative energy sources and a higher minimum wage. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Rep. Giffords speaks during a press conference in Washington, D.C., where members of Congress called on the President to secure the border with the National Guard on April 28, 2010. (James Berglie / Zuma Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. This picture provided by the office of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords on Monday, March 22, 2010, shows damage to her office in Tucson, Ariz. The congressional office was vandalized a few hours after the House vote overhauling the nation's health care system. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., center, gives a tour of Statuary Hall in the Capitol to Shuttle Discovery STS-124 astronauts Mission Specialist Akihiko Hoshide, of Japan, and her husband, Commander Mark Kelly, on Thursday, July 17, 2008. (Bill Clark / Roll Call Photos) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. From right. Rep. Ken Calvert, Rep. Dennis Moore, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and Rep. Heath Shuler, attend a House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security hearing on current and proposed employment eligibility verification systems on May 6, 2008. The hearing provided a forum for lawmakers on both sides of the immigration debate, focusing on a system to verify the legal status of workers and job applicants. (Scott J. Ferrell) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Gabrielle Giffords with U.S. Navy Cmdr. Mark Kelly, a NASA astronaut, at their wedding in Amado, Ariz., on Nov. 10, 2007. Kelly's twin brother, also an astronaut, is a commander on the International Space Station. "We have a unique vantage point here aboard the International Space Station. As I look out the window, I see a very beautiful planet that seems very inviting and peaceful. Unfortunately, it is not," said Scott Kelly of the tragedy that befell his sister-in-law. (Norma Jean Gargasz for The New York Times / Redux Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Representatives-elect including Dean Heller, top right, and Gabrielle Giffords, next to Heller, prepare for the freshman class picture for the 110th Congress on the House Steps on Nov. 14, 2006. (Tom Williams / Roll Call Photos) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords rides horseback in 2006. In an interview with NPR last year, she recalled working with horses during her adolescence in Tucson. "I loved cleaning out the stalls, and I did that in exchange for riding lessons. And I continue to ride most of my life. And I learned a lot from horses and the stable people ... I think it provided good training, all of that manure-shoveling, for my days in politics ahead." (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. A page entitled, "Just do it!" in La Semeuse, the Scripps College yearbook in 1993. The photo at right shows Giffords in traditional Mennonite clothing. That same year, she won a Fulbright award to study Mennonites and other Anabaptist groups in Northern Mexico. Gifford's senior thesis was titled "Wish Books and Felt-Tipped Fantasies: The Sociology of Old Colony Mennonite Drawings." (Scripps College) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Gabrielle Giffords' senior portrait from the 1993 Scripps College yearbook. Giffords double-majored in Latin American studies and sociology. A Dean's List student, Gifford won several awards during her time at Scripps. (Scripps College) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Gabrielle Giffords, right, laughs with her mom, Gloria Kay Fraser Giffords, in a photo published in the Scripps College yearbook. Gabrielle received a B.A. in Sociology and Latin American history from Scripps College in Claremont, Calif. in 1993. (Scripps College) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. University High School portrait of Gabrielle Giffords, class of 1988. Dr. John Hosmer, taught history to the future lawmaker. He tells msnbc.com, "Gabrielle sat in the front row. She was inquisitive ... She was a very mature person from the moment she walked in the door." (University High School) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: US Senate holds hearing on Gun Control
    Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA
    Above: Slideshow (26) Former Ariz. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords
  2. Image:
    Morry Gash / AP
    Slideshow (45) Mourning follows deadly shooting in Arizona

Gallery: Tragedy in Tucson: The shooting victims

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