'We Have Wept With You'
President Obama grieved with the community of Newtown, Conn., Sunday night, telling residents at a memorial service that he was there to assure those who lost loved ones in Friday's brutal attack "that you're not alone in your grief, that our world too has been torn apart — that all across this land of ours, we have wept with you."
In the two days since Friday's attack on Sandy Hook Elementary School, in which 20 children and six adults were killed, residents of Newtown have come together to hold prayer vigils and create impromptu memorials. In the hours before Sunday's interfaith service at Newtown High School, the president met with people who lost family members in the attack.
Those meetings were off the record, out of view of the media. Later, in a speech that was carried by seemingly every major U.S. news outlet, President Obama told the large crowd that gathered on a cold Sunday night, "I come to offer the love and prayers of a nation."
And he did so, comforting those in the auditorium with a speech that clearly came from the father of two young girls. Several pauses within the address seemed to have been made to allow the president to gather himself before continuing. And he passionately described the sense of hope and duty parents feel for their children — as well as the sense of how powerless parents are to protect their children from all the world's dangers.
But the president's speech was not solely focused on commiseration. He also showed his frustration with what he called repeated scenes of mass shootings that have devastated communities before Newtown. He cited the Tucson, Ariz., attack at an event featuring Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in 2011, as well as this past summer's Aurora, Colo., attack at a crowded movie theater.
"Surely we can do better than this," Obama said, in a portion of his speech that ended with a promise to discuss ways to take better care of children in particular, and communities in general, in the coming weeks.
"We can't accept events like this as routine," the president said. He later added, "Are we prepared to say that such violence visited upon our children, year after year after year, is somehow the price of our freedom?"
Below is our live coverage of Sunday night's event, beginning with the president's portion of the program:
Update at 8:39 p.m. ET. President Obama speaks in Newtown:
"We gather here in memory of 20 beautiful children, and six remarkable adults. They lost their lives in a school that could have been any school, in a quiet town full of good and decent people that could be any town in America. Here in Newtown, I come to offer the love and prayers of a nation."
Update at 8:41 p.m. ET. The president, continued:
"I can only hope it helps for you to know that you're not alone in your grief, that our world too has been torn apart — that all across this land of ours, we have wept with you. We have pulled our children tight. You must know that whatever measure of comfort we can provide, we will provide. Whatever portion of sadness that we can share with you, to ease this heavy load, we will gladly bear. Newtown, you are not alone."
Update at 8:43 p.m. ET. President's remarks on school staff:
The president says that the nation was inspired by the town, and the reactions of the staff of Sandy Hook Elementary.
"They responded as we all hope we might respond in such terrifying circumstances: with courage, and with love, giving their lives to protect the children in their care.
"We know there were other teachers who barricaded themselves inside classrooms and kept steady through it all, and reassured their students by saying, 'Wait for the good guys — they're coming. Show me your smile.'
"And we know that good guys came. The first responders who raced to the scene, helping to guide those in harm's way to safety, and comfort those in need, holding at bay their own shock, and their own trauma, because they had a job to do, and others needed them more."
Update at 8:46 p.m. ET. President discusses Newtown and its children:
Of the children, the president said they helped one another, "dutifully following instructions in the way that children sometimes do."
That statement drew giggles that turned into laughter when he added, "One child even tried to encourage a grownup by saying, 'I know karate. So it's OK — I'll lead the way out.' "
Then President Obama returned to his main message:
"As a community, you've inspired us, Newtown. In the face of indescribable violence, in the face of unconscionable evil, you've looked out for each other. You've cared for one another. And you've loved one another. This is how Newtown will be remembered. And with time, and God's grace, that love will see you through."
Update at 8:48 p.m. ET. President discusses parenthood:
"We know we can't do this by ourselves. It comes as a shock ... when you realize, no matter how much you love these kids, you can't do it by yourself."
He says the community means "that we're all parents, that they're all our children. This is our first task: caring for our children. It's our first job. If we don't get that right, we don't get anything right. That's how, as a society, we will be judged. And by that measure, can we truly say, as a nation, that we're meeting our obligations? Can we honestly say that we're doing enough to keep our children — all of them — safe from harm?"
Update at 8:51 p.m. ET. President Obama calls for change:
The president says the answer to the above questions is "No." He cites outbursts of gun violence during his term, calling Newtown "the fourth time we have come together to comfort a grieving community torn apart by mass shootings."
He later adds, "We can't tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change."
Later he adds, "Surely we can do better than this. If there's even one step we can take" to avoid scenes of grief like those in Tucson, Aurora, and elsewhere.
"We can't accept events like this as routine," he says. "Are we really prepared to say that we're powerless in the face of such carnage — that the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited upon our children, year after year after year, is somehow the price of our freedom?"
Update at 9 p.m. ET. President Obama prays for the victims:
The president says the people of Newtown have reminded the nation of "what matters" — and that it is how we raise children.
"Let the little children come to me, Jesus said, and do not hinder them," Obama said, citing the Bible's book of Matthew. "For to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.
He then recited the name of the 20 children killed on Friday: "Charlotte. Daniel. Olivia. Josephine. Ana. Dylan. Madeleine. Catherine. Chase. Jesse. James. Grace. Emilie. Jack. Noah. Caroline. Jessica. Benjamin. Avielle. Alison."
"God has called them all home," the president said. "For those of us who remain, let us find the strength to carry on, and make our country worthy of their memory. May God bless, and keep those we've lost in his heavenly place. May he grace those we still have with his holy comfort. And may he bless and watch over this community, and the United States of America."
The president then folded the binder containing his notes and exited the stage. Seemingly the entire crowd then rose to gave him a sustained ovation.
Our earlier updates from the event continue:
Update at 8:36 p.m. ET Gov. Dannell Malloy:
Malloy says the president told him "that the most difficult day of his presidency was Friday, when he heard the news of that which had befallen this community."
Update at 8:31 p.m. ET. First Selectwoman Patricia Llodra:
"I know that Newtown will prevail, that we will not fall to acts of violence. It is a defining moment for our town, but it will not define it."
Update at 8:28 p.m. ET. Words of comfort:
Dr. John Woodall, leader of Baha'i Faith Community and Rev. Leo McIlrath, chaplain at the Lutheran Home of Southbury offer encouragement and prayers for counselors and caregivers.
Here we must apologize for omitting the names of a woman who addressed the crowd. Not all of the speakers in the service have been identified in the program provided to the media.
Update at 8:22 p.m. ET. Prayer for the first responders:
Rev. Jane Sibley of Newtown United Methodist Church offers a prayer to comfort the police, fire and rescue workers who were the first on the scene.
"We will be faithful to them, we will care for them," she says. "We will continue to equip them. And we will keep them ever in our prayers."
Update at 8:16 p.m. ET. Reciting the Koran, praying for families:
Jason Graves and Muadh Bhavnagarwala of the Al Hedaya Islamic Center in Newtown arrive on stage. We apologize for not knowing which is which (they have not been identified separately). It seems to be the younger, Muadh Bhavnagarwala, who chants a prayer.
Graves then offers a prayer in which he says, "We ask God to grant those lost a special place in paradise. And we ask that their families to be granted the strength the endure the unendurable."
Update at 8:10 p.m. ET. Rev. Jim Solomon:
Rev. Jim Solomon of New Hope Community Church leads a prayer for the children of Newtown — both those that were lost and those that remain. "Life will never be the same for them," he says.
Update at 8:06 p.m. ET. Rev. Kathie Adams-Shepherd:
Adams-Shepherd, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, leads the crowd in reciting Psalm 23.
Update at 8:03 p.m. ET. Rev. Mel Kawakami:
Rev. Mel Kawakami leads a prayer, saying "We know those who are lost, because they're ours, Lord — not names on some list, but our mothers, our sisters, our brothers, our friends. Kindred all — because if we did not know them ourselves, we know someone who did."
After his prayer, the crowd observes a moment of silence.
Update at 7:56 p.m. ET. Rabbi Shaul Praver:
Rabbi Shaul Praver of Congregation Adath Israel in Newtown offers what he calls the Hebrew Memorial Prayer, singing while he is flanked by Rev. Mel Kawakami of Newtown United Methodist Church, who will speak next.
Update at 7:53 p.m. ET.
Rev. Matthew Crebbin explains why clergy (and the president) are sitting among the crowd, not gathered on the stage, where a podium with the presidential seal sits nearly alone:
"We wanted to have a symbolic gesture — that we ourselves are with you, and among you in the coming days. That we are all in this together."
Update at 7:49 p.m. ET. Interfaith prayer vigil begins:
After listening to a pianist playing "gathering music" for some minutes, the capacity crowd in the Newtown High School auditorium stands to applaud President Obama, who enters and sits near the center of the front row.
The crowd is greeted by Rev. Matthew Crebbin, minister of the Newtown Congregational Church, who says, "We needed this. We needed to be together."
Our original post continues:
Media access of Sunday evening's memorial service is being limited to pool coverage. Reporting for the pool, Ann Compton of ABC described the scene inside the Newtown High School auditorium by saying it was cavernous, with wooden seats and a broad stage framed with blue curtains.
The stage was set with a podium bearing the presidential seal, along with the U.S. and Connecticut flags, "and what appears to be a low table set with clear glass votive candles," Compton wrote. She continued:
"The hall is filling with families, many with elementary age children and many of them are clutching stuffed toys and animals. Adults chat in clusters adding to the general buzz in the room.
"Sen. Joe Lieberman is talking to some near the front.
"I am surrounded by kids. And some very weepy dads."