Selfless Heroes

Behind Obama’s Tribute to the Aurora Victims’ Courage, Goodness

To see the ‘brighter day’ Obama promised in Aurora, we’ll all need some courage, says Michael Daly.

Pete Souza / The White House

When he stepped before the news cameras after visiting the wounded in Colorado on Sunday, President Obama quoted Revelation 21:4, a verse about finding the end of grief in grace.

But it was another kind of scripture, one written by human action during those horrific moments in a movie theater, that filled the president’s face with same emotions many of us of every faith were feeling.

If the devil was personified by the pure evil of the movie-theater gunman, then God was to be found in the pure goodness of those who showed such selfless courage in the face of the bullets.

At least three of the 12 dead perished while using their own bodies to shield a loved one. Those who risked death but miraculously survived included two young women whose story Obama recounted as he stood outside the University of Colorado Hospital.

As the president told it, 21-year-old Stephanie Davies and 19-year-old Allie Young were sitting just a few feet away from where the gunman tossed the dispersal canisters as a prelude to evil.

Goodness instantly arose in the person of Young, jumping up to warn the others in the theater. She was immediately shot in the neck and went down, blood spurting from a major vein that had been pierced by the bullet.

Davies got down beside her and pressed her fingers on the wound to stop the bleeding. She kept her fingers there with no thought of herself, concentrating only on saving her friend as the gunman kept firing and firing and firing.

“Allie told Stephanie she needed to run,” the president said. “Stephanie refused to go—instead, actually, with her other hand, called 911 on her cellphone.”

When the shooting finally stopped and the police arrived, Davies still had her fingers in place, saving a life and risking the loss of her own while a dozen lives had been taken all around her. She then helped carry her friend across two parking lots to an ambulance.

“And because of Stephanie’s timely actions, I just had a conversation with Allie downstairs, and she is going to be fine,” Obama said. “I don’t know how many people at any age would have the presence of mind that Stephanie did, or the courage that Allie showed.”

Presence of mind is something Obama clearly prizes. His own presence of mind guided him through an early life as a biracial kid with an absent father. And presence of mind seems to have kept him steady in the face of political opposition so vehement it that race must surely play a part. He was highly praised for maintaining his presence of mind when ordering the SEALs into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden.

Davies did indeed demonstrate remarkable presence of mind of her own in coolly pressing her fingers on the wound and calling 911. But it was presence of heart that kept her there amid the gunfire, willing to sacrifice her life for the sake of her friend. Here was a modern-day revelation at a Batman movie, grace born of an extraordinary young hero to ease the grief wrought by a diabolical maniac.

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“As tragic as the circumstances of what we’ve seen today are, as heartbreaking as it is for the families, it’s worth us spending most of our time reflecting on young Americans like Allie and Stephanie, because they represent what’s best in us, and they assure us that out of this darkness a brighter day is going to come,” Obama said.

As Obama uttered these majestic words, a fly buzzed his face. He reflexively raised a hand to brush it away. The fly returned as it might with anybody, and it added to the larger sense that Obama is made of the same stuff as the rest of us. He had been as moved as almost anybody would have been by his three hours with the victims and by his few stirring minutes at the end with Young and Davies.

After hospital visits of his own with the families of shot cops in New York, Mayor Mike Bloomberg was moved to do all he could to stem such violence by slowing the flow of illegal guns. Obama now seemed moved almost to the point of stepping outside his ever-cool presence of mind and speaking with his heart. He appeared to be just a brave and decent impulse away from speaking out where political expediency has too often kept him silent.

“I hope that over the next several days, next several weeks, and next several months, we all reflect on how we can do something about some of the senseless violence that ends up marring this country …”

He caught himself before he became so swept away he said anything about guns. He remained such a politician that he invoked the heroes to avoid saying anything more that might pose an electoral threat to himself.

“… but also reflect on all the wonderful people who make this the greatest country on Earth.”

With that, he departed. He had said at the start if his remarks, right after his opening citation from scripture (“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more. Neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away”) that he had come to visit the victims “not so much as president as I do as a father and as a husband.” He had been so moved that he almost ceased to make any distinction, that he almost became a father and a husband and president.

He was now back to being the kind of president who is a perpetual candidate, who is silent about guns in a country where an average of 80 people are shot to death each day. He had said nothing earlier in the year when one little girl and then another were gunned down in his hometown of Chicago, even though he has walked those same streets with his daughters. He says nothing now, as the latest victims come to include a 4-year-old killed by a stray bullet in a Bronx playground.

When he so rightly said in Colorado that young Americans such as Davies and Young represent what is best in us, he would have been more accurate to suggest that their grace assures a brighter day could emerge from the darkness. It all depends on the courage that our president and the rest of us show in seeking to keep such horrors from just happening again and again and again.

In good we trust.