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. Marty Rogers

    I think it starts with us, the voters. Every time a politician attacks another as a person, or makes statements that promote violence, we say no, loud and clear. We can demand these people talk to each other without insults. We can demand that they talk to each other respectfully without name calling. We demand that from our children...why couldnt we demand it from the adults in our lives?

    January 12, 2011 at 10:19 pm | Report abuse |
  2. ThomasD

    I can't say I agree with our current administrations policies but this speech, whether written for him or not, was spot on. At times like these we must put aside our partisan agenda and become one nation as intended. Deepest sympathies to the lost loved ones. Rest easy, young one. .

    January 12, 2011 at 10:19 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Janice/Austin

    The President gave a very good speech,it makes me proud to say I'm an American since President Obama was sworn into office. If I was a family member going through this, my thoughts would be "wow', the President took time to mourn and be there for my family. President Obama speech was from the heart and that's why so many people applauding. To the Republicans and other negative people about the speech, "Let it go", it's not about you, let the families in Arizonia take time and mourn and appreciate the President for taking time out of his busy schedule to attend the Memorial Service. My thoughts and prayers goes out to the family.

    January 12, 2011 at 10:22 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Jeff Wright

    Does Congresswoman Giffords have a voice? CNN and other news outlets seem only to show videos of her speaking or being interviewed, minus audio. I would like to get to know this women, so please, play a sound bite or two and silence your commentators/anchors, just for a moment.

    January 12, 2011 at 10:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • AnnG

      If you'd like to hear Rep Gifford's voice – watch MSNBC. Olbermann and Maddow are playing the clips with sound. She's a wonderful, thoughtful woman – and moderate – what a tragic loss. I hope she recovers to the fullest extent possible – but really can't see her returning to Congress. A shame – as that idiot Governor Brewer will probably appoint another Republican to her seat.

      January 13, 2011 at 3:16 am | Report abuse |
  5. immanuel

    sometimes politics should follow faith not the other way around, the only way to take the sting out of the power of death is to exuberantly celebrate the life of those who die in death, at least that is what christianity is " oh death where is your victory" the scripture says 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 ( NKJV ) But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. if we allow sorrow to reign we simply yield power to terror, the clappings in the hall demostrate defiance against the power that sieze the killer to kill, my dear president good job.

    January 12, 2011 at 10:28 pm | Report abuse |
  6. rgl

    Le the people at the service decide if applause and cheering was appropriate. Apparently, most felt it was. It was spontaneous. In my opinion, the panel on 360 is out of line to criticize something they were not directly a part of. Well done, Mr. President and all other participants of this memorial service.

    January 12, 2011 at 10:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jacque

      Well said re Anderson's 360, I had to turn them off it was so distasteful. It was as though we watched two entirely different speeches. I am glad Mr. Obama is my President. He made me feel a range of emtions tonight. Thank you.

      January 12, 2011 at 10:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bob

      I don't watch the news, period. I have a television but only watch DVDs or sports. The comments here about Cooper and 360 confirm why I tuned the "news" out long ago.

      January 12, 2011 at 10:56 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Parashock

    Brilliant speech.

    January 12, 2011 at 10:28 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Rob Johnson

    That makes me very proud that Obama is my President. For perhaps the first time since he was elected, I think he truly rose to the occasion here and was more than a politician, he was a leader.

    Anyone who can say a bad word against that speech either has a permanent grudge against Obama, or no soul. There is great wisdom in those words, whether Obama wrote them or not, and we would all do well to reflect on them.

    January 12, 2011 at 10:29 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Olga

    I believe that president Obama gave a very emotional, touching, intelligent and uplifting speech. I think if people listened carefully they saw Obama as a humang being – husband, father, regular American. I just only hope that we as a nation learn from this tragedy and like he said live up to the expectations of the little Christina.

    January 12, 2011 at 10:32 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Artimus

    Kind of hard to put aside our difference when he is quoting the bible and talking about god. This is NOT a Christian nation!

    January 12, 2011 at 10:33 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Amanda E.

    I thought this was an amazing speech! It addressed what I thought needed to be addressed and went above the politics and hit hard hitting lessons that we need to learn from this. As a resident of Arizona, I can appreciate the cheers and the heartfelt cries that echoed around the stadium. Tucson has a small town feel- everyone knows someone and they are a tight community. They needed this, they needed those cheers, and they needed that support the President gave to them tonight.

    If this didn't define his presidency, I definitely believe that this defined President Obama's personal resolve and his message of hope for this country. Maybe I am the eternal optimist, but I thought this was an awesome example of hope and support.

    January 12, 2011 at 10:44 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Mel

    President Obama and Mrs. Obama coming out here to Arizona, providing support and sharing compassion is awesome. The simple action of compassion is very powerful and once one realizes the power of compassion there is no need for the mind to go any further except to rest in peace and share the realized compassion with others.

    January 12, 2011 at 10:46 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Bob

    Abraham Lincoln could not have said it much better. Longer than the Gettysburg address, but nearly as relevant.

    January 12, 2011 at 10:50 pm | Report abuse |
  14. beechbluff07

    The speech was great. Unlike Anderson and a couple of other pundits, the applause was not annoying at all. And "NO ANDERSON" you did not have to be there to understand the applause. I felt what all those people felt and applauded and cried in my house by my self in a little rural town here in Tennessee. Mr. President.......great job. don't need those six guys on-air with Anderson to critique a "memorial service with a powerful speech by the President of the United States" It stands by itself....sometimes you guys just need to shutup.

    January 12, 2011 at 10:51 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Millie B.

    Your commentary after the President's speech harped on the atmosphere of being less than solemn as the occasion demanded. I would think that journalist and commentators would know by now that yells, whistles, etc. are par for all the activities of the youth of today. It started some 25 years ago. Possibly it was the influence of the "football mania". Even graduation exercises are no longer solemn occasions. Cat-calls pierce our eardrums when a graduate walks across the stage to receive their diploma. Very few classical concerts are spared the same rather rude exhibitionism. I thought the President's speech was eloquent, inspiring and comforting to those unfortunate individuals in sorrow !

    January 12, 2011 at 11:12 pm | Report abuse |
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