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January 17, 2011

The Tucson Challenge

Michael Kurtianyk

Just last Wednesday I watched, with others, the speech President Barack Obama gave at the memorial service for the victims of the shootings outside a Tucson, Arizona, Safeway store nine days ago. This was his finest speech to date, and it ranks up there with the best presidential speeches in history.


It was a speech that consoled the grief-stricken, unified the nation, and inspired us to take a long, hard look at ourselves. To be unaffected by the speech, well, then, you didn’t listen closely, or read the words.


In watching on television and listening to the words, I was surprised that the audience took the tone of a political rally. There were times when I thought it was inappropriate to be cheering so loudly after some of the president’s sentences. However, taken within the context of the entire service, with the president of the University of Arizona speaking, it was a way for the audience to release its pent-up emotions. The citizens President Obama referenced throughout deserved all the applauses and ovations.


To his credit, President Obama didn’t encourage this response, by waving his hands, or even smiling. He took a somber tone throughout, and maintained a dignified stance. This was not a show, as many of the pundits and editorialists said it was the next morning. This was not a stump speech either. This was a service for those who died needlessly.


The most heart-tugging moment was when President Obama told those gathered that Gabrielle Giffords opened her eyes earlier in the day for the first time since she was shot. Seeing her husband there, holding Mrs. Obama’s hand, it was hard not to be fazed.


President Obama gave each victim their own portion of the speech. Each one had a story to tell, and we all saw that the victims were a cross-section of our country: Judge John Roll; Christina Taylor-Green, the 9-year old; Phyllis Schneck, the great-grandmother; Gabe Zimmerman, who was engaged; and Dorothy Morris, who was still enjoying her “50-year honeymoon.”


After all, that's what most of us do when we lose someone in our family – especially if the loss is unexpected. We're shaken from our routines, and forced to look inward. We reflect on the past. Did we spend enough time with an aging parent, we wonder. Did we express our gratitude for all the sacrifices they made for us? Did we tell a spouse just how desperately we loved them, not just once in awhile but every single day?


President Obama’s words reminded us that we can’t take for granted the ones we love, and surround us each day. President Obama continued:


Sudden loss causes us to look backward – but it also forces us to look forward, to reflect on the present and the future, on the manner in which we live our lives and nurture our relationships with those who are still with us. We may ask ourselves if we've shown enough kindness and generosity and compassion to the people in our lives.


Yet it was the part of the speech when President Obama discussed 9-year old Christina Taylor-Green that elevated his speech to greatness:


If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let's make sure it's worthy of those we have lost. Let's make sure it's not on the usual plane of politics and point-scoring and pettiness that drifts away with the next news cycle.


And then this:


I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us – we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children's expectations.


Martin Luther King, Jr., would be proud.


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