TUCSON, Ariz. — President Barack Obama mourned victims of the Tucson shooting spree Wednesday and urged Americans not to let a political debate over the tragedy be used as "one more occasion to turn on one another."
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In a speech at a service for those killed in a weekend massacre that left Rep. Gabrielle Giffords gravely wounded, the president appealed for national unity and soul-searching after the shootings. He urged Americans to "expand our moral imaginations" and "sharpen our instincts for empathy" — even with those who are political adversaries.
"I believe we can be better," Obama said to a capacity crowd at the University of Arizona basketball arena — and to countless others watching across America. "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 is entirely up to us."
Six people were killed and 13 wounded in the massacre. Police allege 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner shot Giffords and many in the line of people waiting to talk with her during a constituent event outside a Safeway store.Story: Obama: 'Heroism is here'
Obama referred to the Tucson gunman, although not by name. "None of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack," the president said. "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."
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The attack sparked a vehement debate over whether the country's heated political discourse had contributed to the shooting.
Using the massacre to address the nation's spiritual state, the president decried the small-minded nature of political debate. "If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let's make sure it's worthy of those we have lost," he said in a speech that was frequently interrupted by applause and cheers from the audience.
"Let's make sure it's not on the usual plane of politics and point scoring and pettiness that drifts away in the next news cycle."
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," Obama said, the killings should make Americans ask themselves "Have we shown enough kindness and generosity and compassion to people in our lives?"
Sarah Palin, the 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee, was drawn into the national debate after the shootings. Last March, Giffords noted in a TV interview that Palin's political committee had targeted her district — among others — with crosshairs on her website and said "there are consequences to that action."
On Wednesday, Palin posted a video online in which she defended her actions and rebuked the news media and her critics.Story: On Tucson and politics, Palin plays by own rules
'Powerful and uplifting'
Newspapers on the left and right of the political spectrum praised the president for his speech.
- A New York Times editorial called it "one of his most powerful and uplifting speeches." Mr. Obama said that it must be possible for Americans to question each other’s ideas without questioning their love of country," added the newspaper, known for its liberal opinion page. We hope all of America's leaders, and all Americans, will take that to heart."
- The Wall Street Journal, known for its conservative opinion pages, declared that "President Obama rose to the occasion yesterday evening at the memorial ceremony for the victims of Saturday's murders in Tucson, not least because he spoke to the better angels of our democracy."
- In The Washington Post, former George W. Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen also complimented the president's perfomance in Tucson. "President Obama's address at the memorial in Tucson was really two speeches in one. The first speech was brilliant. The second was courageous," he wrote, adding that Obama had rebuked those on the left who had tried to politicize the shootings. "This was unexpected. It was courageous. It was genuine. And the president deserves credit for saying it," Theissen wrote.
- Peggy Noonan, who was a speechwriter to Ronald Reagan, described the address as "full spirited." She told MSNBC's 'Morning Joe that Obama said what he needed to say. "In the days since the shooting in Arizona, a lot of people went straight down into the muck and started wrestling there. He didn't go there."
- On the far left, Mother Jones's David Corn praised the speech, saying it was a blow to the president's critics on the right. "The Obama Hate Machine better pray that Obama doesn't get other chances to address the nation in this manner," he wrote.
'Gabby opened her eyes'
During the speech, the crowd was also cheered by unexpected news that Giffords had opened her eyes and signaled she could see earlier on Wednesday.
"Gabby opened her eyes," Obama said to a loud cheer from the audience on the University of Arizona campus, adding that the congresswoman "knows we are here." Although the president wasn't in the room at the moment Giffords' eyes opened, he said her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, had given him permission to break the news.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, three of Giffords' close female friends in Congress, were in the hospital room at that time.Video: Obama: Giffords ‘knows we are rooting for her’ (on this page)
Dr. Peter Rhee, chief of the trauma unit, led the Obamas' 45-minute visit to the hospital.
On Capitol Hill earlier in the day, Giffords' House colleagues praised her and the other shooting victims and insisted that violence would not silence democracy.
"We will have the last word," declared new House Speaker John Boehner, fighting back tears as he described Giffords' battle to recover.Story: Report: Loughner lost it after teen break-up
Also on Wednesday, Pima Community College in Tucson has released records of its campus police contacts with Loughner, showing the increasing fear that he stirred in his classmates and teachers.
A thread running through the documents is the difficulty of campus police to find a context in which to intervene: Until they found a violation of the student code of conduct, or a state law, police officers wrote in the reports that they weren't sure what else they could do, even when a fellow student said she thought Loughner had brought a knife to class.
The records show no indication that the college took steps to get Loughner any mental health counseling.Campus police records show Loughner was feared
Loughner also seemed not to understand the seriousness of the fears. When police spoke with him, Loughner said his free speech rights were being violated, and seemed to have trouble understanding why he had been called out of class.
Meanwhile in Washington, D.C., authorities stepped-up security around lawmakers in the wake of the shooting.
A 32-year-old man was also arrested on a charge that he made threatening, obscene phone calls to the office of U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott last month.
The U.S. Attorney's Office in Seattle said Charles Turner Habermann, of Palm Springs, was taken into custody Wednesday morning.
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