In an emotional visit to Tucson, Arizona late Wednesday, President Barack Obama has visited the wounded from last Saturday's mass shooting and with families of the six people killed. The president and first lady Michelle Obama attended a memorial honoring victims of the shooting spree, and urged Americans toward more civility amid ongoing national debate sparked by the tragic event.
The president, his wife, and other officials accompanying them went almost immediately to the University of Arizona Medical Center.
There, they briefly visited U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who remains in critical condition in the early days of recovery from a gunshot to the head suffered in last Saturday's attack.
Altogether, the Obamas visited with five of the 13 people wounded in the shooting, and with family members of the six people killed, and hospital staff.
Like other presidents before him at moments of national trauma, Mr. Obama in remarks at a memorial called "Together We Thrive" focused on a process of national healing, and on honoring and paying respect to the lives of those killed and wounded.
But he did not shy away from addressing the national debate in the wake of the shootings. Referring to what he called a "sharply polarized" national discourse, he urged Americans not to allow the tragedy to create additional divisions.
"Yes, we have to 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," he said.
Results of a new USA Today/Gallup poll found that only 20 percent of Americans believe heated political rhetoric was a major factor influencing the alleged gunman in Tucson. Forty two percent said it was not a factor, 22 percent said it played a minor role.
As the president was visiting shooting victims and families, a university student, Greg McKormack, commented to reporters about the national debate and what the president's visit meant to him. "You know what, I don't think tonight has anything to do with that. I think it's basically just saying we in the United States, we're going to stand up against this, it's moments like this that actually pull our country together and who better to be at the center of that than the president of the United States of America," McKormack said.
In his remarks, President Obama cautioned against "simple explanations" for the tragedy. Referring to Christina Taylor Green, the nine-year-old girl killed in the shootings, he urged Americans toward reflection that avoids what he called "the usual plane of politics, point scoring and pettiness."
"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," he said.
Others taking part were Arizona's Governor Jan Brewer, Attorney General Eric Holder, and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, all of whom read bible portions. Also addressing a crowd estimated at over 14,000 was Daniel Hernandez, the young volunteer credited with saving congresswoman Giffords life.
Mr. Obama said the selflessness of the heros on the day of the shootings, along with the loss of the fallen, pose a challenge to Am,ericans to be true to the memories of those who died.
The comparisons for Mr. Obama in Tucson were to speeches other presidents delivered in times of national trauma. But the national debate surrounding the Arizona shootings has only intensified.
Sarah Palin, the former Republican vice presidential candidate in 2008, released a video statement on her Facebook page criticizing journalists and political pundits for suggesting that heated political rhetoric was to blame for the Tucson shootings. "Especially 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.
Palin was sharply criticized before the November congressional elections for posting a map containing what appeared to be gunsight crosshair symbols marking districts of Democratic lawmakers, including that of Democratic Congresswoman Giffords.
There is now also renewed debate about gun control and security for members of Congress. Some lawmakers have introduced legislation to ban certain types of high capacity ammunition magazines for guns.
From Tucson, President Obama and his wife Michelle headed back to Washington where among other things the president will be preparing for next week's state visit by China's president.
But he will also be working on drafts of the State of the Union Address he will deliver on January 25, a speech he may use to amplify the strong points he made in Arizona about civility and the tone of the nation's politics.
Related report by Carolyn Presutti