, Arizona, Jan 13 – President Barack Obama led a national outpouring of grief while calling for unity at an emotional memorial after a shooting that unleashed fierce debate about inflammatory political rhetoric.
In a speech repeatedly interrupted by applause for those who tackled the gunman — and the announcement that a US lawmaker who was shot in the head had opened her eyes — Obama said the attack must not lead to new divisions.
"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," he said.
"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," he added.
Thousands of people crammed into the University of Arizona convention hall for an hour-long memorial for the victims of Saturday\’s shooting which killed six and left 14 injured, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
Obama was preceded to the podium by Daniel Hernandez, the intern hailed as a hero for helping the blood-soaked Giffords immediately after the attack outside a Tuscon grocery store.
Hernandez denied he was a hero, but was given repeated rounds of applause by the vast crowd, and contradicted by Obama.
"You may deny it, but we\’ve decided you are a hero," he said.
But the biggest applause came when Obama announced that, just after a visit to Giffords in hospital shortly before the service, she had 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 are rooting for her through what is undoubtedly going to be a difficult journey," he said.
Michelle Obama could be seen wiping away a tear, before hugging Hernandez, who sat next to her.
Accompanied to Tucson by Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano as well as leading lawmakers, Obama had earlier spent nine minutes with Giffords, before meeting with victims\’ families.
Surgeons are upbeat about the prognosis for Giffords, who was shot through the head at point-blank range, but it remains unclear if the rising star in Obama\’s Democratic Party will make a full recovery.
The family of 22-year-old alleged gunman Jared Loughner have broken their silence, saying they are "so very sorry" for the massacre but shedding no light on their son\’s possible motivations. Tragedy in Tucson: Could it have been stopped?
In Washington, the House of Representatives put forward a bipartisan resolution condemning the attack and honoring the victims, with House Speaker John Boehner underscoring the importance of solidarity among lawmakers.
"Our hearts are broken, but our spirit is not," Boehner, choking back tears, told the chamber. "We\’re thankful, so thankful that Gabby is still with us."
Democratic House minority leader Nancy Pelosi joined Boehner in a call for unity, saying Congress must rise above partisanship: "American democracy is founded on our commitment to a contest of ideas, not violence," she said.
The president faced a moment fraught with risk but also a political opportunity at the Tucson service, at a time when he is trying to revive his bond with US voters.
Obama\’s task was complicated by claims from some liberals that the tragedy is somehow linked to a climate of hate whipped up by conservative political figures like Sarah Palin.
Palin, a possible White House contender in 2012, forcefully rejected any responsibility for the shooting spree and accused critics of "blood libel" for tying her fiery political rhetoric to the assassination attempt.
"Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own. They begin and end with the criminals who commit them," she said in a video message on Wednesday.
Officials revealed on Wednesday that Loughner, who faces the death penalty because a federal judge was among his victims, was pulled over in his car for running a red light on the morning of the horrifying attack. Focus: Officer stopped Tucson gunman hours before attack
Meanwhile, judicial officials announced that all Arizona\’s federal judges had been disqualified from presiding over the case, due to the risk that they could not be impartial due to the death of their colleague.
"Based upon the circumstances occurring on January 8, 2011… the impartiality of the District and Magistrate Judges in the District of Arizona might reasonably be questioned," federal judge Roslyn Silver wrote.
A judge from neighboring California, Larry Burns will therefore take over the case, he said.