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Updated: January 13, 2011 09:32 IST

Polarised nation needs healing: Obama

AP
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President Barack Obama bows his head at a memorial service in Tucson, Arizona, to honour the victims of a shooting rampage that that killed six people and left 14 injured, including Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, on Wednesday.
AP
President Barack Obama bows his head at a memorial service in Tucson, Arizona, to honour the victims of a shooting rampage that that killed six people and left 14 injured, including Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, on Wednesday.

President Barack Obama on Wednesday implored a divided America to honour those attacked in the Arizona shooting rampage by becoming a better country, and in a dramatic moment said that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who on Saturday was shot point-blank in the head, had opened her eyes for the first time shortly after his hospital visit.

Mr. Obama dramatically announced that following his bedside visit with Ms. Giffords, the target of the assassination, she “opened her eyes, so I can tell you, she knows we’re here, and she knows we love her.”

First lady Michelle Obama held hands with Ms. Giffords’ husband, Mark Kelly, as the news brought soaring cheers throughout the arena.

Speaking at a memorial in Tucson, Arizona, Mr. Obama conceded that there is no way to know what triggered the shooting rampage that left six people dead, 13 others wounded and the nation shaken. He tried instead to leave indelible memories of the people who were gunned down and to rally the country to use the moment as a reflection on the nation’s behaviour and compassion.

“I believe we can be better,” Mr. Obama said to a capacity crowd at the University of Arizona basketball arena” and to countless others watching around the country. “Those who died here, those who saved lives 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 is entirely up to us.”

Mr. Obama said Ms. Giffords opened her eyes a few minutes after he left her intensive care hospital room Wednesday evening. Mr. Obama that after he left the hospital room at Tucson’s University Medical Centre, some of her colleagues in Congress remained. They were there when the critically wounded congresswoman opened her eyes for the first time.

The shooting rampage has prompted a national debate about overheated political rhetoric, gun control and access to mental health care. As finger—pointing emerged in Washington and beyond over whether harsh political rhetoric played a role in motivating the attack, Mr. Obama sought to calm the rhetoric.

“The forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us,” he said.

After offering personal accounts of every person who died, he challenged anyone listening to think of how to honour their memories. He railed against any instinct to point blame or to drift into political pettiness or to latch onto simple explanations that may have no merit.

“At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarised, 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,” the President said.

Intern Daniel Hernandez, who provided on-the-spot first aid to the wounded Congresswoman Giffords, received a hero’s ovation at the memorial service.

Mr. Obama was among those who gave the 20-year-old Hernandez a standing ovation at Wednesday’s service. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer said Hernandez’ quick actions probably saved Ms. Giffords life. Hernandez rushed to help the congresswoman and tried to stop the blood loss with his hands.

Memories of the six people killed dominated much of Mr. Obama’s speech. The president, for example, recalled how federal Judge John Roll was on his way from attending Mass when he stopped to say hello to Giffords and was gunned down; Dorothy Morris, shielded by her husband, but killed nonetheless; and Phyllis Schneck, a Republican who took a shine to Giffords, a Democrat, and wanted to know her better.

He spoke at length of 9—year—old Christina Taylor Green, the only girl on her baseball team, who often said she wanted to be the first woman to play in the major leagues. She had just been elected to the student council at her elementary school and had an emerging interest in public service.

Obama was again playing the role of national consoler that comes to all presidents and, in rare times, helps define them.

Recent history recalls George W. Bush with a bullhorn amid the rubble of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks; Bill Clinton’s leadership after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, and Ronald Reagan’s response to the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986, when he spoke about being “pained to the core.”

Obama drew on his own sombre experience, following the shooting rampage by one of the military’s own members at the Fort Hood, Texas, Army post in 2009, which left 13 people dead and more than two dozen wounded. Then, as now, Mr. Obama focused his comments on how the victims led their lives.

Mr. Obama was joined on Air Force One by Republican members of Arizona’s congressional delegation, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

Meanwhile, Republican politician Sarah Palin accused journalists and pundits of inciting hatred and violence in the wake of the shooting. The former Republican vice presidential candidate has been criticized for marking Ms. Giffords’ and other districts with the cross hairs of a gun sight in promotional material for Republican candidates ahead of last year’s congressional elections.

In a nearly eight—minute video on her Facebook page early Wednesday, Ms. Palin said “within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible,” she said.

Also Wednesday, details of the attacker’s activities ahead of the assassination attempt were disclosed. Before the Saturday shooting, 22—year—old suspect Jared Loughner went shopping at a megastore, was pulled over for running a red light and ran from his father after an angry confrontation

After two shopping trips to Walmart, Loughner ran a red light but was let off with a warning, the Arizona Game and Fish Department said. The officer took Loughner’s driver’s license and vehicle registration information but found no outstanding warrants and didn’t search the car.

Earlier that morning, a mumbling Loughner ran into the desert near his home after his father asked him why he was removing a black bag from the trunk of a family car, sheriff’s officials said.

He resurfaced later Saturday at a grocery store where Ms. Giffords was holding an event. There, authorities say, he shot 19 people -- killing a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl among others.

Police records at Pima Community College in Tucson released Wednesday detailed Loughner’s increasingly bizarre behaviour last year, culminating with his suspension in September. The 51 pages of campus police reports, obtained under an open records request, described a series of classroom outbursts and confrontations that prompted worried instructors to summon campus officers.

In a poetry class, he made comments about abortion, wars and killing people, then asked- “Why don’t we just strap bombs to babies?”

Sheriff’s reports detailed nine contacts officers had with Loughner or one of his parents, from May 1994 to March 2010. The first with Jared Loughner came in September 2004, when he reported that a fellow student pricked him with a needle.

Authorities previously said they found handwritten notes in Loughner’s safe reading “I planned ahead,” “My assassination” and the name “Giffords.” Nanos and Rick Kastigar, the department’s chief of investigations, and told the AP they also found notes with the words “Die, bitch”, which they believe referenced Giffords, and “Die, cops.”

Giffords, 40, was less sedated and more responsive and her doctors said that her recovery was going as anticipated.

Back in Washington, Ms. 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. He fought back tears as he described Ms. Giffords’ battle to recover.

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