To turn a tragedy into a triumph of the human spirit takes intelligence, grace and eloquence. President Obama showed all these qualities in his moving tribute to the fallen and their families in Arizona, on Wednesday, January 12.
In giving us a summary of the lives of the six who died, he made the memorial service both personal and universal. In telling us the inspiring but also heartbreaking story of nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green, Obama transformed her brief life into a beacon for the nation.
In paying tributes to those who prevented more deaths by stopping the gunman, and the doctors and nurses who acted with urgency to tend to the wounded, the president said, "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 morning."
The President helped lift us from a paralyzing darkness into light. It was all from the heart. There was nothing political about it. He alerted us not to fall for partisan finger-pointing. "... 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 think differently than we do - 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."
America needs to hear these words now. Poisonous rhetoric has seeped into every corner of the land and Americans are perilously close to becoming citizens of two distinct and divided Americas. We have to recognize our inevitable differences of opinion without demonizing those with whom we disagree.
"But what we can't do," the President said, "is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another. 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 us 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 our hopes and dreams are bound together."
Expanding the moral imagination and sharpening the instincts for empathy are, of course, easier said than done. Yet this is what we must do, and Obama was right to invoke these challenges on this somber occasion.
The President held up Taylor Green's short life as an example for us, her innocence, her aspirations, her love for America. "And in Christina...in Christina we see all of our children. So curious, so trusting, so energetic and 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."
President Obama gave a stirring speech in Arizona. There will always be evil in the world, but so will there be good as well. The good can, and will, triumph over evil, despite occasional setbacks. "The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive 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's remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy, but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud."
The President has regained the footing he seemed to have lost in recent times. He did this by transcending politics and pointing us toward a nobler vision of America. Let's hope he can build on it, matching words with action while inspiring us to reach for our better selves.