Let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.
January 12, 2011
There is a special kind of guilt that overcomes you when you have the opportunity to hear the man who has inspired such a sense of hope in you for what is possible in this country when it is surrounded by such tragic circumstances. The entire experience was like a surreal dream. I have imagined what it must be like to be present for an Obama speech but never thought I would have the chance to be at one, and much less to be at one when the community in which I live is in desperate need of healing. The entire audience was fixated on his presence and message in a way that I have not experienced previously. Suddenly this seems like a much better place to live and I think about 10,000 people in that arena (and ~15,000 in the overflow venue) feel the same way.
We left to go get in line for entrance into the arena at noon. Walking over from the medical center to the main campus takes about 10 min but as soon as we crossed the main street that separates the two campuses it became clear that we probably should have left earlier. There were people everywhere and quite a bit of confusion about where the lines were starting. As we finally made our way to what looked like a line we learned that the lines had actually started the evening before. Camping gear and all.
While in line we learned that they would be admitting about 10,000 people to the arena (which holds 14,000). Overflow crowds would be admitted to the football stadium (next door) to watch the speech on a big screen. I don’t know exactly how many people were there but as the afternoon wore on we took a walk around and the University mall was more crowded than I have ever seen it before with lines winding around everywhere. Eventually student volunteers were all over the place telling us whether we could expect entrance (we were told yes) and passing out paper and pens for us to write notes for a chain of well-wishes they were building.
It was a warm day in Tucson and people were in line for hours. Tucson is very dry so even if its not hot you get dehydrated. Some of the fraternities were out passing out free water to people in line (great idea). A little later in the afternoon people came out passing out t-shirts (for free) with the words “Together we thrive, Tucson and America”. We found out later that this was the motto for the evening.
At 4PM we finally started to file in and about 5 we made it to the entrance to the arena. After passing through the security (which was remarkably orderly considering the huge crowd) we entered the arena and found seats near the very top row. It seems that they had to stop admitting people to the arena soon after we entered. For the next hour we watched people file in and as they showed politicians (Pelosi, Napolitano, McCain, etc.) the crowd gave applause (the most, by far, was for Janet Napolitano). At some point Dr. Rhee and the other doctors came in and they were shown on the arena screens. The crowd erupted in applause for them.
Right at 6PM President Obama and The First Lady entered to thunderous applause. The evening began with a Native American Blessing which was very well done and President Shelton (UA President) introduced the program. Some biblical readings were given and I thought they were very appropriate considering the occasion. When Janet Napolitano was introduced to give her reading the crowd gave her a several minute standing ovation. It is clear that this city misses her as our governor (but I knew that already).
At about 6:30, President Obama took the stage to one of the most rousing ovations I have heard in my lifetime. If you didn’t see the speech, its available here. There were parts, such as his description of Christina Taylor Green’s all too short life where there was not a dry eye in the arena (at least around me). He asked us to honor her life by living up to the expectations offered by the hopefulness of her youth. For the people there, sharing that moment seemed to signal the start of our collective healing experience.
Being in the same place with the President, listening to him speak in person, gave me a new appreciation for the uniqueness of his talent. I realized afterwards that, in many ways, his words tonight were the one’s I had been looking for in my mind to help me understand what happened in Tucson on Saturday. They were also the words that I was looking for to help me move from viewing my community as one that had been eternally fractured to one that has the potential for greatness in the face of tragedy. I do not know why I was not able to come up with those thoughts for my own well being and it is likely the case that I did not even know that they were the ones I was searching for.
All in all, I thought that it was a remarkably well done memorial that represents an excellent start to healing our city. I am very proud to be a part of The University of Arizona tonight. Tucson is a large city (more than a million people) but it is true that this is really a college town. UA is geographically and figuratively the heart of the city and it has been moving, as a faculty member, to see the city come together around the University.
Finally, Daniel Hernandez. Sir, the President is right, you are a hero. You deserved every second of the outpouring of appreciation that you received tonight. That our Congresswoman opened her eyes tonight for the first time and is on the road to recovery is due, in large part, to your courageous efforts to save her life. Thank You.