Even as the United States struggled to come to terms with the violent shooting in Tucson, Arizona, last weekend, President Barack Obama and senior administration officials paid homage to the victims on Wednesday. Six people were killed and 14, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, were seriously injured when Jared Lee Loughner (22) opened fire.

Mr. Obama also told the gathering that “Gabby”, who was recuperating from a near-fatal head wound, had opened her eyes for the first time.

Visibly moved, Mr. Obama said: “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... 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.”

Mr. Obama called for political leadership that sought to heal rather than wound.

“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 happen to think differently than we do, it is important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we're talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds,” he said.

In the aftermath of last Saturday's rampage, the public discourse and news media here have been seared by a visceral debate that has blamed violence-inciting vitriol by Republican Party elements, and also a pervasive gun culture, for the shooting spree.

The former Governor of Alaska and Tea Party heavyweight, Sarah Palin, in particular, faced a barrage of criticism this week for suggesting that various Democratic Congressmen, including Ms. Giffords, be placed in the “crosshairs” of Republicans.

On Wednesday, Ms. Palin posted a video response on her Facebook page, in which she condemned those who blamed her for the shooting as committing “blood libel”.

However, Mr. Obama, who quoted lines from the scriptures in an emotion-laden speech — said to have been written by himself — shied away from partisan or accusatory statements. He called for civility in public discourse and cautioned against “simple explanations” in the search for reasons behind the killings.

He also paid tribute to the youngest victim of the attack, nine-year old Christina Green, who had participated in Ms. Giffords civic engagement exercise called “Congress on Your Corner,” to learn about democracy in action.

“Here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship... She saw public service as something exciting and hopeful,” adding, “I want to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it,” said Mr. Obama.