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Memorial Service or Pep Rally?

Tonight, with deep sadness, I watched the televised memorial service in Arizona.  The pain felt by the friends and families of the injured and killed is simply unimaginable to those of us who have not experienced such a loss. It is admirable that the University of Arizona took a leadership role in paying tribute to the victims and I thank them for opening their campus to the world. I thank President and Mrs. Obama for representing our nation in extending our collective condolences to those touched by this tragedy.

While one life is not more precious or valuable than another, I suspect we are all particularly saddened by the loss of an innocent child’s life. Christina-Taylor Green seemed to have lived her short life with richness, fullness, compassion, and gusto, but she was robbed of the opportunity to become all that she dreamed of being. It took my breath away to learn that this child, who died a victim of senseless violence, was born during another horrific day of senseless violence on September 11, 2001. How can life be so unfair to one beautiful little being or so cruel to her loving family? Those born on September 11th represented our national hope for a brighter, more secure future. They were the ones who would finally get it right.

I think we all welcomed the opportunity to honor those now departed and to communicate to Congresswoman Gifford and her husband that they are in our thoughts and prayers and that we look forward to celebrating her full recovery. But as I watched the memorial service, I couldn’t help but be embarrassed for the people of Arizona and for all Americans–and in fact deeply outraged–that while some were suffering so profoundly, there were many in the audience (presumably students) who seemed to think that they were at a pep rally or political convention. One wonders if some saw this as the social event of the year, or a material for a new page in the college scrapbook, rather than an opportunity to reflect upon our national grief and show our collective support to those who need to know that we care. The behavior of the audience was nothing short of appalling.

We do want to celebrate the lives of those taken too early from this earth, but interrupting the President’s somber, respectful and inspirational speech, as though he was delivering it from the Convention floor, was astonishing. It was right for our elected officials to be there, but shocking that the audience didn’t seem to understand the context of their remarks or the fact that tonight, they spoke not as elected officials trying to score points, but as representatives of the people—all people—of the United States of America. The president’s discomfort with the inappropriate audience response was obvious.

President Obama’s speech paid appropriate homage to those whose lives were lost and I thank him for offering the gratitude of a nation to those whose bravery saved lives. The president’s sadness was genuine and I appreciate that he brought our nation together to mourn, to provide solace and to engender hope.

Thank you, President Obama, for reminding us that none of us can possibly know what motivated the killer, what was going on in his head, or what pushed him over the edge.  Thank you for reminding us that it is the murderer who is at fault for these horrific actions. Thank you for encouraging us to learn personally from this, for reminding us that each day is precious and that none of us ever knows which day will be our last.  Thank you for admonishing each of us to ask if we are living our lives well and right, if we are honoring our families appropriately, and if we are contributing to our communities as we should. Thank you for highlighting how important it is that we have loved.

To the administrators at the University of Arizona, I’m sure you never thought you would need to tell your students how to behave at a memorial service, but sadly it would appear that you did. Among your students is at least one who knows how to think about someone other than himself. Daniel Hernandez acted quickly and decisively to save Congresswoman Gifford’s life, and the essence of his spirit—his intelligence, humility and poise—were well displayed in his very appropriate and heartfelt remarks. He was not shouting or whistling. He knows the gruesome truth.

I have great faith in young Americans, but the behavior exhibited at tonight’s memorial service gives me great pause and great concern.

I extend my deepest sympathy to the victims of this tragedy, including those who were not at the grocery store but who now find themselves forced to cope, grieve, mourn, and somehow find a way to pick up the pieces and make sense of the senseless. We will not forget you, nor will we forget your loved ones who, in honoring the principles of American democracy, lost so much.

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