Thursday, January 13, 2011

After the Attack: Hope Restored? Change Coming?

I watched and listened as President Obama spoke in Tucson last night. And I came away with the kind of sentiment that Joan Walsh expressed at last night.

The event billed as a memorial service for victims of the Tucson, Ariz., massacre turned into what critics called a "pep rally," with cheering and hooting and hollering crowds. I don't understand what bothered people, because it was clear to me from the start: The University of Arizona crowd was celebrating the heroism that was on display last Saturday, when ordinary people became heroes and saved lives. And they were cheering the very idea of America.

There it was, folks, Saturday morning and again Wednesday night: our country, as good as it gets. Remember how great it looked and felt and sounded, when things inevitably get ugly again. Reagan-appointed Supreme Court Justice Sandra O'Connor, now retired, sat admiringly next to Daniel Hernandez Jr., the 20-year-old Gabrielle Giffords intern who helped save her life Saturday (who happens to be gay and Mexican American). Attorney General Eric Holder was side by side with Gov. Jan Brewer, whose racial profiling law he's fighting. The service began with an Indian blessing from Dr. Carlos Gonzales, who described his mother as Mexican, his father as a Yaqui survivor of "genocide," and his son as a soldier in Afghanistan, who praised "this great country, where a poor barrio kid from the south side of Tucson could get an education at a fine institution like the University of Arizona -- and then, even better, come back and teach here."

Like it or not, that's American history: We are imperfect, descended from people who took land from Indians and Mexicans and who held slaves, but also from people who fought for equal rights for everyone, and who, over time, managed to create laws and values and customs that (mostly) do that. Daniel Hernandez began his speech with the words "e pluribus unum" -- out of many, one -- and even if it's not an ideal we always live up to, it's the best idea we've ever had as a nation. President Obama delivered what I think was his best speech ever, but for a while Wednesday night, Hernandez stole the show, reminding us "what defines us is not difference ... we are all Americans," and rejecting the label "hero," since he said, "The real heroes are those who have dedicated their lives to public service." Obama correctly differed with Hernandez, congratulating him as a hero for helping to save Giffords' life.

E pluribus unum. When did we lose this? And how can we get it back? President Obama's speech last night gave me hope that maybe, just maybe, we can find our way again.

Last night, Gabrielle Giffords opened her eyes for the first time since last Saturday. So far, her recovery has been remarkable. Just 10% of those shot in the head survive this kind of injury, and even fewer make the kind of full recovery that Giffords' doctors now say may be possible for her.

It's already encouraging to see Giffords recover, but I hope that as she recovers, our representative democracy also recovers. For far too long, our system has been ripped apart. People have been intimidated out of participating. Congress has often descended to a madhouse of constant "political warfare". We have to get past this.

So will we? Will we see the kind of change that Americans have been longing for so long? Will we see our government work? Will we see inflammatory rhetoric on caustic politics replaced with honest dialogue on good policy? I think this may very well be the best way we can honor Gabby Giffords, the other survivors of last Saturday's attack, and all those we've lost.

Below is the video from last night's ceremony.

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