In a speech repeatedly interrupted by applause for those who tackled the gunman — and the announcement that a US lawmaker who was shot in the head had opened her eyes — Obama said the attack must not lead to new divisions.
“At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarised; 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, 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,” he added.
Thousands of people crammed into the University of Arizona convention hall for an hour-long memorial for the victims of Saturday’s shooting which killed six and left 14 injured, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
Obama was preceded to the podium by Daniel Hernandez, the intern hailed as a hero for helping the blood-soaked Giffords immediately after the attack outside a Tuscon grocery store. Hernandez denied he was a hero, but was given repeated rounds of applause by the vast crowd, and contradicted by Obama.
“You may deny it, but we’ve decided you are a hero,” he said.
But the biggest applause came when Obama announced that, just after a visit to Giffords in hospital shortly before the service, she had opened her eyes for the first time.
Doctors have said she is moving both legs and both arms, has opened both eyes and is responding to friends and family.
“Gabby opened her eyes. So I can tell you she knows we are here. She knows we love her,” he said.
Michelle Obama could be seen wiping away a tear, before hugging Hernandez, who sat next to her.
Accompanied to Tucson by Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano as well as leading lawmakers, Obama had earlier spent nine minutes with Giffords, before meeting with victims’ families.
Surgeons are upbeat about the prognosis for Giffords, who was shot through the head at point-blank range, but it remains unclear if the rising star in Obama’s Democratic Party will make a full recovery.
The family of 22-year-old alleged gunman Jared Loughner have broken their silence, saying they are “so very sorry” for the massacre, but shedding no light on their son’s possible motives.
In Washington, the House of Representatives put forward a bipartisan resolution condemning the attack and honouring the victims.
The president faced a moment fraught with risk but also a political opportunity at the Tucson service, at a time when he is trying to revive his bond with US voters. Obama’s task was complicated by claims from some liberals that the tragedy is somehow linked to a climate of hate whipped up by conservative political figures like Sarah Palin.
Palin, a possible White House contender in 2012, forcefully rejected any responsibility for the shooting spree and accused critics of “blood libel” for tying her fiery political rhetoric to the assassination attempt.
“Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own. They begin and end with the criminals who commit them,” she said.
The president leaped firmly into the political debate that broke out shortly after the gunfire ended last Saturday, whether harsh political rhetoric from last year’s acrimonious congressional elections had anything to do with inspiring the gunman to shoot.
“What we can’t do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another,” Obama said.