Thursday, January 13, 2011

An American Tragedy - Tucson, AZ

A few days ago we wondered if we Americans were a nation that had forgotten how to mourn.  Today we ask another question, have we become so casual, callow, and aloof that we have forgotten the words, "protocol" and "etiquette?"  Those thoughts came to mind this evening as I watched the nationally televised service at Mckale Center Arena, at the University of Arizona in Tucson. 

It was difficult to categorize the service, it was a multi purpose event to bring healing to the Tucson Community that had been so traumatized by the multiple murders and shooting that took place on Saturday, January 9, 2010.  U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was critically wounded when a madman appeared out of nowhere and began shooting into the crowd.  By the end of the day it was obvious that Representative Giffords had been his intended target. 

All week long, the news from Tucson have dominated the television coverage.  Journalists and the public alike eagerly awaited updates from the hospital, each time hoping for good news on Rep. Gifford's progress, as well as the progress of others who had been shot and were in the hospital receiving treatment for their wounds.  Those who were mortally wounded were soon identified, as well as those whose heroism had saved lives and prevented the shooter from emptying another cartridge of bullets on the unsuspecting crowd.

The shooter was apprehended, incarcerated, indicted and all who read or watched the news were often astonished to learn that someone with such a sick mind had lived in their midst.  As time progressed it was fairly conclusive that the 22 year old gunman was very clinically, mentally disturbed, perhaps, some speculated maybe a homicidal schizophrenic. 

Once the doctors had ascertained that Gabby Giffords was still critical, but stabilized and her chances of survival assured, the service which took place on Wednesday evening was planned.  After holding a moment of silence on the steps of the capitol with all the Congress and staffers assembled, President and Mrs. Obama prepared to fly to Arizona on Wednesday.  As we watched them leave the White House their mood appeared to be grave, unsmiling as befitted their destination. They were going to honor the dead, and pray for healing for the wounded.

After visiting at the hospital, the Obamas entered the Arena and took their places on the front row.  The crowd of some 14,000 inside and nearly 12,000 outdoors greeted them as one would a rock star.  The cheers, applause, whoops and whistles, sounded bizarre in a setting of grief. For those who'd lost loved ones it must have been hurtful, and the Obamas appeared startled.  Sitting alone in my den, I said to myself, "This can't be happening."

There is a certain protocol that is observed at times like this.  The solemnity of the occasion dictates it.  Because there were no clergy men who appeared to have roles in the service, I wondered just exactly what direction the program would take.  After the Obama's sat the orchestra played "Fanfare for the Common Man", a haunting melody, punctuated by drum beats. 

UA President Robert Shelton led the ceremony, announcing each guest and performer.  After the National Anthem was sung, Pres. Shelton introduced, UA Professor Carlos Gonzalez who gave a long and somewhat peculiar Native American Blessing.   UA  student body president Emily Fritze and Daniel Hernandez, Jr. were introduced next.  

 Hernandez a student at UA was working as an intern for Congresswoman Giffords, and is being hailed as a hero for his quick actions which probably saved Giffords' life as well as some others.  When he was introduced the crowd of mostly students went wild with cheers and what seemed like endless applause and whistles.  To his credit, Mr. Hernandez appeared almost embarrassed by the adulation, and speaking eloquently and extemporaneously, he declined the title of "hero" giving credit instead to the first responders and medical staff who'd tended to the wounded.

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer followed and introduced the visiting dignitaries.  After speaking a few encouraging words, Gov. Brewer introduced HSA Secretary Janet Napolitano, who is also the former governor of Arizona, who read from the book of Isaiah, in the Old Testament.  Attorney General Eric Holder followed with  a reading from the New Testament.

President Shelton then introduced President Obama and once again the students screams and cheers were overwhelming.  After a standing ovation, President Obama began his speech. "I have come here tonight as an American who, like all Americans, kneels to pray with you today, and will stand by you tomorrow," he said,  "There is nothing I can say that will fill the sudden hole torn in your hearts." 

Following the Scripture readings, his opening words appeared to set the tone for the somber and sorrowful occasion.  But it was not to be.  The crowd of students interrupted all through the speech with applause, whistles, shouts, and cheers.  He wound up speaking some 34 minutes.  The service ended with the choir singing a Shaker Hymn, and President Shelton reading a poem.

I sat in my den stunned.  I read somewhere that the students cheers had lightened the somber mood.  As the mother of a former cheerleader, I felt I'd just witnessed a pep rally before a big game.  Some one else commented that the McKeal Center is a sports arena that is used to hearing "cheers not tears."  Fine, if you'd gone to a sporting event!  But this was not a football game, or The Final Four.  This was a solemn occasion.  In the audience sat the families of those who had died, their grief still raw, and the families of those who are still hospitalized, including Gabby Giffords' whose recovery is still questionable. 

What was to be a defining moment in Obama's presidency, will not be remembered as that.  Granted, I'm not an Obama fan, but all week I've heard comparisons to the speech that Ronald Reagan gave after the space shuttle disaster, and the speech Bill Clinton gave after the Oklahoma City bombing, or George Bush's address at the National Cathedral in Washington after the tragedy of September 11, 2001.  All tragic moments in American history, and all received by grieving Americans with the seriousness and respect which the occasion demanded. Their speeches, all delivered and received in manner befitting the somberness of the event.

To his credit, Mr. Obama gave a very eloquent speech, and seemed to adapt well to the crowd's mood which he obviously had not expected. His intent was to recognize those who had so tragically died,  to offer comfort to the wounded, and to offer words that would heal the wounds that the Tucson community has felt since being thrown in the limelight.  It was in fact, one of his better speeches, and I'm sure the text of it can be found on the Internet for anyone to read.  I'm not going to quote it or reprint it here.  But the shouts, the cheers, the applause, interrupted it's fluidity, and in part robbed it of the impact it could have had.

There were a few times when the cheers were welcome.  When Obama announced that Gabby Giffords had opened her eyes for the first time, and when Daniel Hernandez was hailed as a hero.  But the rest of the time it was completely out of place, regardless of the venue where it was held.  They made me feel uncomfortable, and I wonder how many of those there who were still grieving could tolerate the cheer.

What it did demonstrate is that many of America's young adults  can't seem to be serious for one solemn event.  Do they even know the protocol one follows when attending a memorial such as this? Do they know the proper etiquette one uses to express condolence and sympathy to the grieving families? Do they know how to be serious and do they know how to mourn?

These young college students are the future leaders of this country.  They will soon be going out into the workforce to assume responsible jobs.  The "have fun, party mentality" needs to be tempered with moments of seriousness and decorum.  I was shocked and extremely disappointed by their behavior. Regardless of their reasons for being there, this was not a campaign function.  They were there to honor their fellow citizens and they didn't do it properly.

Another unusual practice in today's ceremony was the giving away of
T-shirts emblazoned with "Together We Thrive, Tucson and America," the theme of the evening.  Who has ever heard of giving away souvenirs at an event to memorialize the victims of a sordid tragedy?

In our church, when someone dies we don't call it a funeral.  We refer to it as "A Celebration of Life." With God's will, the people of Tucson will have times when they can have a celebration of life for the living, for those who survived the madness of last Saturday. Then it will be the proper time to cheer.  Hopefully in spite of these odd irregularities, we will, as the president challenged, "strive to be better, be better in our private lives, to be better friends and neighbors, co-workers and parents."

Who knows?  Maybe because of this American tragedy, we might even learn to be better political adversaries!

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