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23 April 2024

Obama pays emotional Arizona tribute


President Barack Obama on Wednesday implored Americans to cleanse their corroded democracy to fulfill the snuffed out hopes of a nine-year-old girl gunned down in the Arizona shooting tragedy.

In an emotive and rousing memorial service, Obama said the innocent and emerging wonder at democracy of Christina Taylor Green should spur Americans to use her loss to purge the vicious divisiveness consuming public life.

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

Soul-searching since the tragedy has focused on the toxic political climate and whether it in some way inspired the misfit gunman who shot dead six people and wounded 14 others in an attempted assassination on a congresswoman.

In a 35-minute eulogy that sought to unite a fractured America after Saturday's shooting, Obama called for a more civil public discourse and urged Americans not to turn on one another, Democrat upon Republican.

"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.

There was a stunning moment when Obama announced that Democratic congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, the target of Saturday's assassination attempt, had opened her eyes just minutes after he left her bedside.

"Gabby opened her eyes for the first time. So I can tell you she knows we are here. She knows we love her. And she knows that we are rooting for her through what is undoubtedly going to be a difficult journey."

The shock statement brought a packed crowd of 14,000 people at the University of Arizona to its feet, wildly applauding, but by the end of the eulogy many were close to tears as Obama focused on nine-year-old Christina.

Born on another day of tragedy, September 11, 2001, the president used her as a potent symbol to force America to wake up to its political ills.

Christina, "so curious, so trusting, so energetic and full of magic," was everyone's child, the president said, recalling how, in a special book for 9/11 babies, she had hoped that readers liked jumping in rain puddles.

"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 earlier spent nine minutes with Giffords. Although surgeons are upbeat about her prognosis, she was shot through the head at point-blank range and it remains unclear if the 40-year-old rising star in Obama's Democratic Party will ever make a full recovery.

The family of 22-year-old alleged gunman Jared Loughner broke their silence on Tuesday, saying they were "so very sorry" for the massacre but shedding no light on their son's possible motivations.

In Washington, the House of Representatives put forward a bipartisan resolution condemning the attack and honoring the victims, with House Speaker John Boehner underscoring the importance of solidarity among lawmakers.

"Our hearts are broken, but our spirit is not," Boehner, choking back tears, told the chamber. "We're thankful, so thankful that Gabby is still with us."

Some US liberals have claimed that the tragedy is somehow linked to a climate of hate whipped up by conservative political figures like Sarah Palin.

Palin, a possible White House contender in 2012, forcefully rejected any responsibility for the shooting spree and accused critics of "blood libel" for tying her fiery political rhetoric to the assassination attempt.

"Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own. They begin and end with the criminals who commit them," she said in a video message.

Officials revealed on Wednesday that Loughner, who faces the death penalty because a federal judge was among his victims, was pulled over in his car for running a red light just three hours before the horrifying attack.

A funeral Mass for Christina, the youngest victim and now the most potent symbol of the Tucson tragedy, will be held on Thursday.