Obama to Arizona as shot lawmaker fights for life

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WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama will lead Americans in national mourning on Wednesday after an Arizona shooting tragedy unleashed a polarizing national debate about the violent rhetoric rocking US politics.
Obama will fly to the southwestern state to lead a tribute service for the six people who were killed and the 14 wounded in the assassination attempt on congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who is fighting for her life in a hospital. His trip will take place after the family of the 22-year-old alleged gunman Jared Loughner said they were “so very sorry” about Saturday’s assault and as surgeons gave an upbeat forecast of Democrat Giffords’s condition.
Obama faces a moment fraught with risk but shrouded in political opportunity when he leads the service in Tucson, Arizona, at a time when he is trying to revive his bond with US voters. His task is complicated by liberal claims that a climate of hate whipped up by conservative figures like Sarah Palin may have tipped Loughner over the edge and exposed malign divisions of US politics. Presidents, in their symbolic role as head of state and commander-in-chief, are periodically required to invoke unity in a moment of crisis, weaving shocking events into a parable of American history and national mythology.
They have summoned poetry, like Ronald Reagan after a space shuttle disaster in 1986, or prose pulsing with resolve, like George W. Bush in his National Cathedral address after the September 11 attacks in 2001. Such speeches are “a way to take a tragedy and to be sober and somber but also to use it as a way to bring the country together and to move it forward,” said political science professor Jamie McKown.
Obama will likely avoid assigning blame, while honoring the dead and offering counsel for the living.
“The President began working on his speech last night,” a White House official said Tuesday. “He will devote most of his remarks to memorializing the victims.” As many as 14,000 people were expected to attend the service at the University of Arizona amid tight security. The president was to appear alongside First Lady Michelle Obama and Republican Senator John McCain.
Surgeons meanwhile gave an upbeat outlook for Giffords, as she remained in intensive care after brain surgery following Saturday’s attack. “She’s holding her own,” said Michael Lemole, the head neurosurgeon who operated on Giffords, adding that she was still responding to simple commands, a key sign for her recovery prospects. “I’m very encouraged by the fact that she’s done so well,” he said.
Peter Rhee, head of trauma surgery at University Medical Center, said doctors had reduced the sedatives administered to the Democratic lawmaker, adding: “She will not die. She does not have that permission from me.” Giffords took a single bullet to the head in the shooting at a public event outside a grocery store in Tucson, which killed six including a federal judge and a nine-year-old girl. Rhee added that the resources of the entire military had been offered to help care for the victims, including Giffords, whose husband Mark Kelly is a US Navy captain and astronaut.
Loughner’s family made their first comment, saying in a statement that they were “so very sorry” for the victims and “don’t understand why this happened”.
Loughner appeared in court in the state capital Phoenix on Monday on five charges including murder and attempted murder. The New York Times meanwhile reported that police had been called to the Loughners’ home on more than one occasion before the attack and quoted a friend as saying the alleged killer was skilled with a gun. “He was a nihilist and loves causing chaos, and that is probably why he did the shooting, along with the fact he was sick in the head,” Zane Gutierrez, 21, told the newspaper. On Tuesday Bill Hileman, whose wife Suzi took nine-year-old Christina Green to the Gifford event, said she was suffering harrowing flashbacks.
Although his wife remains under heavy sedation in hospital, Hileman said she was clearly distressed.
“I hear in her semi-conscious ramblings, screaming out ‘Christina, Christina, let’s get out of here, let’s get out of here’,” he said.