The “memorial” service held for the fallen from last week’s shooting in Tucson was bazaar. It was difficult to watch. This was supposed to be a memorial service, not a pep rally or a ball game. It should have had a tone of dignity, respect, and solemnness; not cheers, whistles, clapping, and outbursts. There is a time for all of those things, but this was not it. The families and friends of those killed or wounded are in a period of deep emotional grieving. The behavior of the crowd, many of whom were University of Arizona students, was at the very least inappropriate if not troublingly insensitive.
University of Arizona president, Robert Shelton, bears a great deal of the responsibility for what happened. He should have set the tone of the “memorial” from the beginning. He did not. Admittedly, this task was made more difficult by the fact the gathering was in a basketball arena where whooping and hollering are usually appropriate. Rather than send a clear message about this being a solemn ceremony, Shelton, himself, behaved as if this were a commencement program or alumni gathering by referring frequently to people being U of A graduates. This only encouraged inappropriate behavior.
Other major factors signaling appropriate behavior were missing. These typically would have included traditional cultural cues like the presence of recognized clergy and appropriate music being played. Instead, Shelton introduced U of A Professor Carlos Gonzales to lead in a Native American opening prayer. It was difficult to tell when Gonzales’ speech about himself ended and the rambling prayer began.
The parade continued. We heard from the governor of Arizona, Jan Brewer. Her message was appropriate, but the crowd response was not. It was time to shut up and sit down, not cheer and clap as if rooting a team on. Following her came Attorney General Eric Holder and Janet Napolitano of Homeland Security; both of whom were allowed to choose and read scripture. Neither of them had any business saying anything. The shooting was the act of one insane shooter. This had nothing to do with Holder or Napolitano. Instead, having clergy from churches attended by victims’ families would have been a much wiser choice.
President Obama was the final speaker. Mostly, he got it right. Early in the gathering, it appeared he, too, was baffled, perplexed, and even uncomfortable with the tone of this “memorial” service. The first portion of his message was serious, compassionate, and comforting. He chastised those who, in the days following this tragedy, had politicized it. Most of those were from his own Democrat party. He ended with the encouraging news that Representative Gabrielle Giffords had, shortly after the President’s visit to the hospital, opened her eyes for the first time. Obama concluded by urging all of us to move our country forward in a way that would meet the expectations of the nine year old girl, Christina-Taylor Green, who lost her life that horrible day in Tucson.
The families and friends for whom this memorial service was held may have gone away confused about what this gathering was really about. Solemn, dignified, and respectful occasions help those who are hurting to grieve. This did not happen in Tuscan, Arizona.