TUCSON, Arizona – The youngest victim of the Tucson shootings was laid to rest Thursday, after Barack Obama hailed the 9-year-old girl as an inspiration to US politicians to heal their poisonous divisions.
Christina Taylor Green, who was among six people killed by a misfit gunman last Saturday, has become the heart-breaking public face of the attacks which unleashed a wave of soul-searching about America’s political culture.
Hundreds of people lined the streets as her small coffin was borne into the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church for the more than service, and fell silent again when it emerged again more than an hour later.
“It was very good, very beautiful, her father was amazing, he said beautiful words. Uplifting her memory, remembering her, it’s all it was about,” Jodie Kirk, who attended the church ceremony, told AFP afterwards.
“She was… just a normal kid, a joy to the world.”
The funeral procession passed beneath a huge Stars and Stripes US flag recovered from the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 — the day the schoolgirl was born.
At a poignant memorial service late Wednesday, US President Barack Obama hoped the schoolgirl was now hopping through “rain puddles in heaven” as he paid tribute to those killed and wounded in Saturday’s shooting spree.
Democratic congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was left fighting for her life after the attack, which killed six and left 13 other people injured when a gunman opened fire at a public meeting outside a Tucson supermarket.
Giffords was reported Thursday to have made a “major leap forward” in her recovery, opening her eyes spontaneously for up to 15 minutes and moving her legs and arms when asked, doctors said.
“This is a major leap forward, and we’re hoping that she crosses through many more,” said neurosurgeon Michael Lemole.
Obama, the father of two young daughters himself, appeared enthralled by the wonder young Christina was developing for American democracy at a time when partisan bickering has spawned widespread disgust.
“I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it,” he told a 14,000-strong memorial service in the shocked Arizona desert town.
But the enduring memory of the speech was the little girl, now becoming the face of this tragedy, much as teacher and crewmember Christa McAuliffe became an emblem for the 1986 space shuttle Challenger disaster.
Green’s parents said she was drawn to politics because she was born on 9/11, and New York firefighters sent the huge flag rescued from the ashes of the Twin Towers to the funeral.
Supporters of the fundamentalist Westboro Baptist Church, a radical group which regularly mounts protests at funerals, had planned to demonstrate, but state lawmakers rapidly passed a law banning them from doing so.
A number of people outside the church, including a bikers’ group, made it clear that they would protect mourners from the Westboro activists if they did turn up.
“We are here to support the family, make sure that everything is safe,” said Tina Childers, a member of the the Phoenix bikers’ group in her late 40s known as “Crazy Chain.”
Obama had hoped the schoolgirl’s story would help heal a nation shocked by the killings and gripped by a toxic political climate many said was in part to blame for the shooting, allegedly carried out by a disturbed local 22-year-old.
His 35-minute eulogy won praise from across the country’s political chasm.
Even Republican former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld said: “At a time when our nation needed it, President Obama delivered moving, presidential remarks last night.”
It came after Republican star Sarah Palin accused the media of “blood libel” over commentators’ remarks linking the Tucson attack to her conservative Tea Party movement.
The use of the term — which refers to a centuries-old slander that Jews use the blood of Christian children in religious ceremonies — offended Democrats and some Jewish groups, who noted that Giffords was Jewish.