At first, the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 19 bystanders on a sunny Saturday afternoon at a grocery store called Safeway seems downright dystopian, a scene out of Doomsday in America . Among the dead are not only a well-regarded federal judge who stopped by to say hello after Mass, a man who was shot in the head as he shielded his wife from the gunman, and a 79-year old woman, but also, heartbreakingly, a 9-year-old girl born on 9/11, who was one of 50 babies featured in the book Faces of Hope .
But I find myself lingering on the flip side of the story, the one I pray will not be overlooked: The part where Americans acted like the Americans we would all like to be, the part where, faced with an unimaginably heinous situation, a diverse group of bystanders stepped up and risked their lives for one another.
In the middle of the carnage was 61-year-old Patricia Maisch, who was in line to meet Representative Giffords. She was about 20 feet away from Giffords when the gunfire began. Instinctively, she dropped to the ground and, as she told CBS News , “He shot the woman that was next to me.” Two other bystanders, Roger Salzgeber and Joseph Zamudio managed to knock the gunman down, but he still had the gun in his hand and was struggling to reload. So Maisch, without any thought to her own safety, wrestled away his large ammunition magazine, thus saving untold others. (It makes one wonder a bit about the logic behind the ban against women in combat.) Meanwhile, Giffords’ intern of five days, Daniel Hernandez, a 20-year-old college student, also ran toward the gunfire. He may have saved her life by elevating her head so that she would not choke on her own blood, by staunching her bleeding and by doing what he could to direct triage on other victims until medical help arrived. Giffords was then airlifted to the emergency room of Dr. Peter Rhee, chief of trauma at the University Medical Center and a military surgeon uniquely prepared to help, as a veteran of “hundreds and hundreds” of battlefield injuries during his time in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
What a mix of men and women from all walks of life, of all ages and ethnicities, came together on Saturday in Tucson. The static and reverb of the 24-hour news cycle may suggest that our society is cracking under the weight of discord and hate, but if so, through that crack I see the potential for a better future.
I come back to Christina Taylor Green , the 9/11 baby and vibrant 9-year-old who was at Representative Giffords’ “Congress at Your Corner” meeting because she wanted to engage with the world. And to her mother, Roxanna Green, who is right now experiencing an unimaginable horror and loss, but still, like her 9-year-old daughter, has bravely chosen to connect rather than turn away. “I think there’s been a lot of hatred going on and it needs to stop,” she told the The New York Times .