President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, following his remarks in Tucson, Arizona. (Photo: Pete Souza / White House)
Tucson, Arizona - President Barack Obama played the part of "healer in chief" Wednesday night, honoring the victims of Saturday's mass shooting while seeking to calm an increasingly angry political debate, urging all Americans to stop pointing fingers and "make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.''
"I have come here tonight as an American who, like all Americans, kneels to pray with you today, and will stand by you tomorrow," Obama told a crowd of 26,000 gathered inside and outside the University of Arizona's basketball arena. "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 Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the other living victims of this tragedy pull through."
The president, who devoted much of his speech to the bravery of the victims and recalled those who died, first detoured away from the basketball arena to pay an unannounced visit to Giffords, who's in critical condition but making steady progress, doctors say, toward an improbable recovery from a gunshot wound through her head.
"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," the president said, adding that "Gabby opened her eyes for the first time," a statement that brought the crowd to its feet.
"And I can tell you this — she knows we're here and she knows we love her and she knows that we are be rooting for her throughout what will be a difficult journey. We are there for her."
People stood in line for more than 30 blocks, waiting to see Obama pay homage to the victims of last Saturday's shooting rampage, which killed six and wounded 14 others, including Giffords.
The memorial service came the same day that authorities in Tucson revealed that a state Fish and Game officer had stopped the alleged gunman, Jared Lee Loughner, earlier on the morning of the shooting.
Loughner was stopped on a red light violation at 7:34 a.m. about six miles from the Safeway where six people were killed and 13 others injured, but he was released because there were no warrants outstanding and his license was valid. Two and a half hours later, authorities say, he opened fire.
Loughner faces federal charges in the deaths of a federal judge and a federal employee, and he could face the death penalty.
The Pima County Sheriff's Department also revealed that among the writings that 22-year-old Loughner left behind in his home were documents he may have intended for investigators to find, including a paper that contained the phrase "Die bitch" and another that read "f--- you pigs."
The sheriff's department released records showing visits to the Loughner home dating back to 1994 for various complaints. The records showed Loughner had been arrested as a juvenile in 2006 when he showed up at high school one morning "so extremely intoxicated" on vodka that he was sent to the emergency room.
He also was cited in September 2007 on marijuana and drug paraphernalia charges.
But the focus in Tucson Wednesday wasn't on the suspect Wednesday. Instead, people gathered to honor the victims killed and offer hope for the survivors. Wednesday, Obama played a role similar to that former President Bill Clinton assumed when he spoke after the Oklahoma City bombing in remarks that earned him the nickname "healer in chief."
The president visited Tucson as the community sought to show that it renounces violence, and Gov. Jan Brewer, who spoke before the president, vowed that Arizona's spirit "will not be shredded by one mad man's act of darkness."
More than 13,000 people gathered inside McKale Center, with another 13,000 in the football stadium watching on large screen televisions, and they cheered as firefighters and police who rescued victims of the rampage filed into the arena.
After days of shock and tragedy, the crowd was seeking release and looking for heroes, and they weren't in short supply.
Some of the loudest cheers and a standing ovation came when doctors from the University of Arizona Medical Center who worked feverishly to save Giffords and the other survivors filed into the arena in their white medical smocks.
Dr. Peter Rhee, the combat-trained trauma surgeon who has become a face of the university and who virtually guaranteed Giffords will survive, received extended applause when he arrived. Cheers and screams greeted 75-year-old Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, a close friend of Giffords' who set off national debate with his denunciation of the nation's toxic political arguments and his refusal to back down from his statements.
And intense applause repeatedly greeted 20-year-old University of Arizona student Daniel Hernandez Jr., a Giffords intern who rushed to save her and held compresses on her head wound until help arrived.
Political leaders including Attorney General Eric Holder; Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, a former Arizona governor; House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi; Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy; and former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a native Arizonan, were among the guests. A number of House members who are friends and colleagues Giffords and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, also attended.
Obama met with other victims Wednesday who remain hospitalized, and also had private meetings at the arena with survivors of the attack.
During his remarks, the president recalled each of the victims killed, including John Roll, Arizona's chief federal judge, and 9-year-old Christina Taylor-Green, shot to death as she waited in line to meet her congresswoman.
As the president spoke of Christina, Michelle Obama, seated to the side next to Giffords' husband, appeared to be holding back tears.
"The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better, be better in our private lives — to be better friends and neighbors, co-workers and parents," Obama said.
Wading carefully into the debate over political discourse, he told the crowd that "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.
"We cannot use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other," he added. "That we cannot do."
Before the ceremony, student volunteers painstakingly folded thousands of Navy blue T-shirts emblazoned with the theme of the evening — "Together We Thrive, Tucson and America" and placed them on the arena seats.
Some people said they had arrived as early as 7 a.m. to get into the arena for the 6 p.m. ceremony, and many said they simply felt the need to honor Giffords.
Michael Wong, a 20-year-old Arizona State University student, drove two hours from Tempe to his rival school's Tucson campus Wednesday because he wanted to help hand out small pieces of paper for people to write prayers and thoughts on. Later, they were taped into a paper chain more than 500 feet long.
"We've had people just sitting thinking for a long time about what they wanted to write," Wong said. "It's really making people think."
(Stanton reports for the Sacramento Bee.)