Transcript: President Obama addresses Arizona shooting memorial
January 12th, 2011
09:20 PM ET

Transcript: President Obama addresses Arizona shooting memorial

President Barack Obama spoke before an audience of more than 14,000 people Wednesday night at the University of Arizona in Tucson for a memorial event honoring the victims of the Saturday attack that killed six and left a congresswoman fighting for her life:

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.

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 twenty 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 helping 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 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 from Congress were in the room, Gabby opened her eyes for the first time. [Applause] Gabby opened her eyes for the first time. [Applause] Gabby opened her eyes for the first time. Gabby opened her eyes. So I can tell you she knows we are here. She knows we love her and she knows that we will be rooting for her through what is undoubtedly going to be a difficult journey. We are there for her.

Our hearts are full of gratitude for those who saved others. We are grateful to Daniel Hernandez, a volunteer in Gabby’s office who ran through the chaos to minister to his boss, tending to her wounds to keep her alive. And, Daniel, I'm sorry, you may deny it, but we decided you are a hero because you ran through the chaos to minister to your boss and tend to her wounds and keep her alive.

We are grateful for the men who tackled the gunman as he stopped to reload. Right over there [pointing out men] 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.

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, all around us, in the hearts of so many of our fellow citizens, just waiting to be summoned, as it was on Saturday.

Their actions, their selflessness, poses a challenge to each of us. It raises the question of what, beyond 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. And 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 happen to think differently than we do - it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we're talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.

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 have to guard against simple explanations in the aftermath.

For the truth is that 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.

Yes, we must 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 violence in the future.

But what we can’t do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other. 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's 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 that our hopes and dreams are bound together.

After all, that’s what most of us do when we lose someone in our family -– especially if the loss is unexpected.  We’re shaken out of our routines, 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 awhile 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, generosity, compassion to the people in our lives. Perhaps we may question whether we are doing right by our children, our community, whether our priorities are in order. We recognize our own mortality; we are reminded that in our fleeting time on 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 our 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, we see a reflection of our public spiritedness, 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, so 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 with 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, co-workers and parents. And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help 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.

We 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 believe and I believe we can be better. 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, 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 here for a moment, a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just beginning to glimpse that someday 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, vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted.

I want to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America 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.

This was already 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 this Earth, we place our hands over our hearts, and 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.

soundoff (251 Responses)
  1. ugh

    Well I had hoped he would be unlike other politicians, Daman, when I worked on his campaign in college, and he is to a certain degree with his incorruptible nature and sound judgment, but I really, REALLY miss the old Obama who had an energy about him. And Cie, if you're there, enjoy the moment and get off CNN online crazy.

    January 12, 2011 at 9:36 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Monica H. Thomas

    Extremely classy speech Mr. President. As a teacher returning from three snow days, my 8th grade ELA class will definitely discuss this tomorrow. Thank you Mr. President for reminding us as a nation to at times to let the children lead us. You were clearly at your best and most inspirational Mr. President. Clearly the Head of State and unifying leader reminding us that we have more in common than not. Thanks for rising above–far above politics. May you continually be blessed. I differ with those who feel that there should have been maudlin discourse. This community and our country need to be reminded that there is joy. Let's be reminded that weeping endures for a night but there is in deed joy–not in the loss of life but in lives clearly well lived. Together we do indeed thrive!

    January 12, 2011 at 9:37 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Carol

    What a wonderful, inspiring speech; our president at his best.

    January 12, 2011 at 9:37 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Cie

    But unlike so many I am capable of multi-tasking. And, frankly it is stay busy or reality sets in for me

    January 12, 2011 at 9:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • ugh

      Sorry if you were affected by the tragedy, best wishes to you.

      January 12, 2011 at 9:40 pm | Report abuse |
  5. April James

    My heart bleeds for the families and our nation. Because a person cannot deal with personal pressures they decide to take the lives of others. God help us

    January 12, 2011 at 9:39 pm | Report abuse |
  6. KS

    We are grateful for the men who tackled the gunman as he stopped to reload.

    January 12, 2011 at 9:39 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Redeye Dog

    Politics as usual.... The president talked about a lot of things we should all live up to. Maybe he should first have a talk with his Secretary of State who described the "alleged" shooter as an extremist when speaking at a foreign venue but he just described him as a "violent mind" in this venue.

    Which is it, Mr. President? Violence or Extremism? If you are going to use a venue like this memorial service to push your politics, at least make a stand!

    January 12, 2011 at 9:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • tomboy1824

      Rally Redeye??? Your splitting hairs...he does not control what she says that is ridiculous to even think he approves her words. And just a face, she has to say "alleged" because he hasn't been convicted of anything!!!!! That's called the law!!!

      January 12, 2011 at 9:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chuck Trent

      Redeye Dog, I'm praying for you. Please look up the definition of "objectivity," and then start moving toward practicing it even when evaluating people, like our president, with whom you do not agree or like. Thank you.

      January 12, 2011 at 10:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bob

      Redeye Dog – can't people like you be quiet for just a moment?

      January 12, 2011 at 10:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Redeye Dog

      tomboy1824 – That's the thing. She didn't say "alleged," I did. She flat out used the incident to down talk our nation (again) while publicly accusing the shooter of being an "extremist" before he was even charged with anything! But you wouldn't know that because you are blinded by the rhetoric of main stream liberal media. Do some research...

      If you believe that he (the president) does not control what she says, I guess you haven't noticed those who have been fired (or let go). His power is not limited to the military. He can hire or fire ANYONE in his cabinet, so please...... Stop defending politics as usual.

      Chuck Trent – Before chiming in with your two cents, you might at least make sure you know what your talking about.

      Bob – I could ask you the same question...

      January 12, 2011 at 11:45 pm | Report abuse |
  8. KS

    MR. President, You proved once again why you are the President! Your vast knowledge and heart for America is unparallel and I for one admire your courage to stand up for what is right and need for the hour. Thank you!

    January 12, 2011 at 9:42 pm | Report abuse |
  9. DDeno

    Mr. President, that was a powerful speech. And to those who condemn the speech, go back under your rock. You are not worthy of recognition.

    January 12, 2011 at 9:42 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Marty Rogers

    beautiful words! I keep thinking of Christina's father lamenting that she may be forgotten one day, because he knows how special she was. If anything could possibly slightly lessen his pain, if only for a minute, President Obama's words may have. What a beautiful speech. I hope some generous benefactor memorializes her with an award or a grant named after her, for young women wanting to follow a career in public service.

    January 12, 2011 at 9:46 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Ray

    Healing, Appropriate, Inspirational. Thank you Mr. President. What a difference compared to The Pathetic Palin tape of earlier today where she tried to claim the victim mantle from the 20 real victims and bash the "Lamestream" media. Sarah you showed us who is lame and it ain't the mainstream media.

    January 12, 2011 at 9:46 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Dee

    Thank you President Obama, wonderful job helping to heal the country with you inspiring and comforting words. I know before it is over many will tear down each and every word that he spoke, and have bitter criticism about the atomsphere of the memorial. As a 49 year old African-American female born in Mississippi, I have never observed so much hate,ill-will,and evil as I have experienced since Barak Obama became President of our Great United States of America. The Word of God tells us to rejoice at the homegoing of his saints. We needed cheers, because weeping had endured long enough.

    January 12, 2011 at 9:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rae

      "Ecclesiastes3:1-4 To every thing there is a season, a time to every purpose under the heaven: a time to be born,
      a time to die, a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal,
      a time to break down, and a time to build up; A time to weep, and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance "
      Dee – do you really think this is the time to dance?

      January 12, 2011 at 10:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Hannah

      Amen. I love our President. He is a compassionate and genuine human being that leads with his whole heart.

      January 12, 2011 at 11:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dee

      Yes Rae, just as the scripture you quoted expresses that there is a time to cry and a time to laugh. What time do you deem as the appropriate time to take off the sackclothes.

      January 12, 2011 at 11:56 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Logan

    Jimmy Carter was great at making speechs also, however he was a bad leader for our country. Obama is the same. Great speech now start leading.

    January 12, 2011 at 9:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • ric

      Logan, you have obviously been asleep the last two years, while Obama's been doing really fine things against all odds and a hateful group of "citizens" like yourself....who probably do nothing for others except find fault.

      January 12, 2011 at 10:48 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Kevin

    The President made a great point, "we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children's expectations." He couldn't have said it better. Overall, it was a beautiful speech, and perhaps a defining moment in his presidency!

    January 12, 2011 at 9:52 pm | Report abuse |
  15. asele

    I applaud you Mr. President for your speech tonight. You gave the country hope, but did not turn it into a political event. Let me state that I did not vote for Mr. Obama, and am a Republican voter 90% of the time. This does not mean that I cannot respect Mr Obama for what he said tonight at the memorial service for the victims and their families.

    To the students that were in the crowd – I thought that they were very disrespectful with all of their hooting and hollaring. This was a memorial service not a pep rally! We as a society need to know when to show respect and honor those.

    Mr. President thank you again for keeping politics out of it and just showing care and concern for all of those involved.

    January 12, 2011 at 9:53 pm | Report abuse |
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