Washington – President Barack Obama mourned victims of an Arizona gunman on Monday and steered clear of a debate on whether harsh political rhetoric inspired the attack on a congresswoman.
As many members of his own Democratic Party decried the often rabid level of political discourse in the country, Obama said he is grieving for the victims and their families and honoring those who apparently prevented more deaths.
Obama will travel to Arizona on Wednesday to attend a memorial service for the victims of the shooting attack on Representative Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, a U.S. official said. Victims included a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl.
Giffords is in critical condition with a gunshot to the brain. She had been holding a “Congress on Your Corner” meeting with constituents near a grocery store when she was attacked.
“Right now the main thing we’re doing is to offer our thoughts and prayers to those who’ve been impacted, making sure that we’re joining together and pulling together as a country,” Obama said.
Bowing their heads solemnly, Obama and first lady Michelle Obama paused for a moment of silence on the White House South Lawn on a cold, windy day in Washington.
A bell tolled three times as an estimated 300 White House staff members gathered for the somber occasion.
“Obviously, all of us are still grieving and in shock from the tragedy that took place,” Obama told reporters during a subsequent picture-taking session with visiting French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
“Gabby Giffords and others are still fighting to recover. Families are still absorbing the enormity of their losses,” he said.
While no motive has been apparent in the shootings, some politicians and pundits have been quick to cite the political rhetoric in a country with loose gun laws.
The rampage thrust Obama into a chief grieving role for a second time since he took power two years ago. In November 2009, 13 people were killed at Fort Hood, Texas, in a shooting spree.
The White House said Obama has made a round of calls since the shootings to families of the victims as well as leaders of the U.S. Congress, both Democrats and Republicans.
This included the House of Representatives’ new Republican speaker, John Boehner, as well as Giffords’ home-state senators, Republicans John McCain and Jon Kyl.
Obama was twice briefed on the unfolding investigation on Monday by his counterterrorism chief, John Brennan, the White House said.
Obama told reporters it was important to focus on the “extraordinary courage” of those at the scene of the shootings, including two men who wrestled down the gunman and a wounded woman who helped secure the ammunition that might have fueled more shootings.
“Part of what I think that speaks to is the best of America, even in the face of such mindless violence,” Obama said.