President to offer condolences at Virginia Tech memorial service

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WASHINGTON (AP) – Expressing the nation’s sorrow, President Bush ordered flags flown at half staff Tuesday in honor of those killed in the nation’s deadliest shooting spree.

“Our nation grieves with those who have lost loved ones at Virginia Tech,” Bush said in a proclamation. “We lift them up in our prayers and we ask a loving God to comfort those who are suffering.”

Bush planned to travel Tuesday afternoon to speak at Virginia Tech, where 32 people were gunned down in two separate attacks. He and first lady Laura Bush were to attend a campus convocation “as representatives of the entire nation,” the White House said.

“They will be there as the national representatives on a day that is full of sorrow for every American,” she said. “He will remark about the amazing strength of the community, and I’m not just talking about the city limits of Blacksburg, but as you seen that’s there’s been an outpouring of support.”

Bush directed flags to remain in the lowered position through sunset Sunday.

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has sent 12 agents to Virginia Tech and the FBI has contributed some 15 agents as well for the investigation. The federal help, including input from the U.S. Attorney’s office in the Western District of Virginia, is being coordinated at a command center set up on the campus.

In addition to helping with the crime scene, the Department of Justice is making counselors available to victims and their families through a special office and the Education Department is offering assistance as well.

Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, just back from Japan to deal with the tragedy, was traveling with Bush on Air Force One to the convocation.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino deflected any questions about Bush’s view of needed changes to gun control policy, saying the time for that discussion is not now.

“We understand that there’s going to be and there has been an ongoing national discussion, conversation and debate about gun control policy. Of course we are going to be participants in that conversation,” she said. “Today, however, is a day that is time to focus on the families, the school, the community.”

Perino added: “Everyone’s been shaken to the core by this event and so I think what we need to do is focus on support of the victims and their families and then also allow the facts of the case to unfold before we talk any more about policies.”

In times of tragedy, Americans turn to the president to be the nation’s consoler and comforter.

Bush rallied the nation after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. One of the most enduring images of his presidency is Bush standing atop a pile of rubble in New York with a bullhorn in his hand. After Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, Bush made repeated trips to the region but wound up criticized for the government’s sluggish response to the storm.

President Clinton went to Oklahoma City in 1995 after the bombing of the federal building there, and his on-the-scene empathy was later viewed as the key factor in reviving his presidency and helping him win re-election.

After the shooting on Monday, Bush expressed shock and sadness about the killings. He lamented that schools should be places of “safety, sanctuary and learning.”