In the eight days since the deadly shootings in Arizona, the nation has been engulfed by a tidal wave of rhetoric and reaction, much of it unnecessary, ungracious, or unfortunate. But amid the flood of words, two voices have spoken with an uplifting decency and grace that should make them memorable long after the hue and cry of the past week has ended.
One of those voices was that of President Obama, whose remarks at the memorial service in Tucson Wednesday night were humane and eloquent, unmarred by the acrimony that has ricocheted back and forth in the political echo chamber. The president spoke movingly about each of the victims whose lives were cut short. He gratefully hailed by name those whose heroism and quick thinking prevented even more lives from being lost. And with no hint of self-interest or rationalization, he urged all Americans not to "use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other."
Obama is the leader of his party and an agile partisan combatant, and there are those who would have him make political hay out of the atrocity in Arizona. Within hours of the killings, Politico was quoting "one veteran Democratic operative" whose advice to the White House was to "deftly pin" the bloodshed in Tucson on the "overheated rhetoric" of conservative activists in the Tea Party.
But the president rose above such sentiments. "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."
Obama has been fairly criticized for many things, and many Americans will doubtless have more reasons to fault him as he gears up for re-election over the next two years. But unlike Bill Clinton after Oklahoma City, no one will be able to charge Obama with exploiting the massacre in Tucson for political gain. "More than at any other point in his presidency," wrote one of his fiercest critics, former George W. Bush aide Pete Wehner, following the memorial service, "Mr. Obama was president of all the people and spoke beautifully for them."
Not even the president, however, could match the goodness, dignity, and large-heartedness of John Green, whose 9-year-old daughter, Christina, was the youngest victim of suspect Jared Loughner's rampage.
Speaking through tears as he was interviewed on NBC's "Today" show and on the Fox News Channel, Christina's father refused to pin his daughter's murder on the "climate of hate" and "vitriolic rhetoric" so many others were eager to indict. Unlike the local sheriff who seized the moment to smear Arizona as "a Mecca for prejudice and bigotry," John Green said the killings were "such a random act, such a rare thing to happen in Tucson, Arizona, which is a wonderful city -- and the northwest side is a wonderful community."
The chattering class spent much of the past week calling for new laws and tighter regulations. There were proposals for -- among other things -- a ban on carrying guns within 1,000 feet of a member of Congress; resurrecting the long-discredited broadcast Fairness Doctrine; funding more outpatient clinics to treat the mentally ill; and prohibiting ammunition clips that hold more than 10 rounds. John Green endorsed none of them. "We don't need any more restrictions on our society," he said. New laws and limitations cannot prevent every horror, and if we want to live "in a country like the United States, where we are more free than anywhere else, we are subject to things like this happening."
No one would have faulted Green if, in his heartbreak, he had raged against the monster who shot Christina. Instead he expressed gratitude for "the friends and family we have surrounded ourselves with in this tragedy," and added, with almost incomprehensible generosity: "If maybe that fellow who was shooting everybody -- if he had had some friends and family around him, maybe this wouldn't have happened."
Like most people, Americans talk too much and think too little, especially when it comes to the sins and sorrows of others. There is "a time to keep silence and a time to speak," Ecclesiastes teaches. When a tragedy like the one in Tucson strikes, most of us would do well to keep silence, and to leave the speaking for those with the humanity and wisdom to say something meaningful.