President Barack Obama offered the nation's condolences to the victims of the Tucson shooting rampage, urging Americans on Wednesday evening to draw a lesson from the lives of the fallen and the actions of the heroes and usher in a new era of civility in their memory.
"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," Obama 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."
Speaking at a memorial at the University of Arizona, Obama bluntly conceded that there is no way to know what triggered the shooting rampage that left six people dead, 13 others wounded and the nation shaken. He tried instead to leave indelible memories of the people who were gunned down and to rally the country to use the moment as a reflection on the nation's behavior and compassion.
"I believe we can be better," Obama said to a capacity crowd in the university's basketball arena — and to countless others watching around the country.
"Those who died here, those who saved lives here — they help me believe," the president said. "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."
The president asked Americans to pray for the wounded, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who authorities say was the target of an attempted assassination.
Obama's speech, by turns somber and hopeful, at times took on the tone of an exuberant pep rally as he heralded the men who wrestled the gunman to the ground, the woman who grabbed the shooter's ammunition, the doctors and nurses who treated the injured, Daniel Hernandez, the intern who rushed to Giffords' aid. The crowd erupted in multiple standing ovations as each was singled out for praise.
He spoke at length of 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green, the only girl on her Little League team, who often said she wanted to be the first woman to play in the major leagues. She had just been elected to the student council at her elementary school.
"I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it," Obama said. The little girl was born on Sept. 11, 2001, and had been featured in a book about 50 babies born that day. The inscriptions near her photo spoke of wishes for a happy child's life, including splashing in puddles.
Said Obama: "If there are rain puddles in heaven, Christina is jumping in them today. And here on Earth, we place our hands over our hearts, and we commit ourselves as Americans to forging a country that is forever worthy of her gentle, happy spirit."
The crowd included retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a native of Arizona, as well as Sen. John McCain, Sen. Jon Kyl and Gov. Jan Brewer, all Republicans from Arizona.
Obama spoke after stopping to visit Giffords in her hospital room. He said he was told that shortly after his visit, Giffords opened her eyes for the first time.
As her congressional colleagues reconvened in Washington for the first time since the shootings, they set aside a partisan debate over health care to remember the dead and the wounded, even as they began studying measures to bolster their own security. A daylong series of tributes ended with the House passing a resolution to honor the victims.
"We feel a litany of unwanted emotions that no resolution could possibly capture," Speaker John Boehner, choking back emotion, said on the House floor. "We know that we gather here without distinction of party. The needs of this institution have always risen above partisanship."
The president and the first lady, Michelle Obama, invited a bipartisan delegation and members of the Cabinet to travel with them to Tucson aboard Air Force One. Obama visited Giffords and other victims in the hospital before making his way to the University of Arizona, where thousands of people waited in line.
The crowd spilled beyond the McKale Center, which can hold 14,000 people, and overflowed into the University of Arizona's outdoor stadium, where images of the event, titled "Together We Thrive: Tucson and America," were to be broadcast over the scoreboard's big screen.
The gathering occurred four days after a gunman shot Giffords and 19 other people in a Safeway grocery store parking lot where people had gathered to visit with their congresswoman.
House Republicans in Washington had planned to spend Wednesday voting to repeal the health care overhaul, but instead they devoted much of the day to a bipartisan resolution to honor the dead.
One by one, in the monotone voice of the clerk, the victims' names and a host of random facts about them filled the House chamber:
Christina Taylor Green, "a third-grader with an avid interest in government"; Dorothy Morris, whose husband "was also critically injured as he tried to shield her from the shooting"; Judge John M. Roll, "a devoted husband to his wife, Maureen, father to his three sons and grandfather to his five grandchildren"; Phyllis Schneck, "a 79-year-old church volunteer and New York Giants fan"; Dorwin Stoddard, "a volunteer at the Mountain Avenue Church of Christ"; Gabriel Matthew Zimmerman, "who was 30 years old and engaged to be married."
House Republicans and Democrats met separately with the House sergeant-at-arms and with officials from the U.S. Capitol Police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who urged them to appoint a security coordinator in their home districts.
Several lawmakers said the message was to use common sense — but also that protecting all 535 members of Congress from unpredictable threats was a daunting task.
As Republicans trickled out of the meeting, several rejected the idea that the Tucson shootings indicated a need to tighten gun-control laws or even to revisit a law that banned the oversized magazine of bullets that Jared Loughner used. He fired 31 shots from a Glock 19 semiautomatic.
"I wish there had been one more gun there that day, in the hands of a responsible person, and that's all I have to say," Rep. Trent Franks, R.-Ariz., said, brushing away a question about gun control.
Information from the New York Times and Associated Press was used in this report.