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Obama to Dallas Mourners: 'We're Not as Divided as We Seem'

President Obama, attending another service for victims of mass shootings and trying to mend a country riven by distrust between citizens and police, paid tribute to five Dallas police officers ambushed at a protest last week, saying their deaths should remind Americans of the country's greatest ideals.

The same spirit, Obama said, was evident in the attack's aftermath, when a white mayor and black police chief worked together to heal their city.

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He spoke of the thankless work done by police officers around the country, and of the legitimate grievances that many black people feel from years of discrimination, including at the hands of law enforcement. But he also gave the country a pep talk, urging citizens not to lose hope in the past week's squall of violence that began with black men killed by white police officers in Louisiana and Minnesota and culminated with the officers' killings on Thursday.

"We see all this and its hard not to think the center won't hold and things won't get worse," he said. "I understand. But Dallas, I'm here to say we must reject such despair. I'm here to insist we're not as divided as we seem. I know that because I know America. I know how far we've come despite impossible odds.

Police officers arrive at an interfaith memorial service, honoring five slain police officers, at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center on July 12, 2016 in Dallas, Texas.
Tom Pennington | Getty Images
Police officers arrive at an interfaith memorial service, honoring five slain police officers, at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center on July 12, 2016 in Dallas, Texas.

The president told brief personal stories about each of the five officers with the Dallas Police Department and the Dallas Area Rapid Transit police force, calling them heroes: Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael J. Smith, Brent Thompson and Patrick Zamarripa. Calling them heroes, he described their relationships with their wives and children and extended families, their dedication to public service, and the routine ways they spent their final days. He told how they died at the hands of a vengeful gunman, Micah Johnson, on assignment protecting people marching against police.

"Like police officers across the country, these men and their families shared a commitment to something more than themselves," Obama said. He added: "They were upholding the Constitutional rights of this country."

Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, called for Americans to remember their common values rather than the things that pulled them apart. "This is the bridge across the nation's deepest divisions," Bush said. "We don't want the unity of grief, nor do we want the unity of fear. We want the unity of hope, affection and high purpose."

That purpose, he said, was exemplified by the officers who ran toward Thursday's gunfire, and those who died.

Reserved seats contain American flags and police hats during an interfaith memorial service, honoring five slain police officers, at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center on July 12, 2016 in Dallas, Texas.
Tom Pennington | Getty Images
Reserved seats contain American flags and police hats during an interfaith memorial service, honoring five slain police officers, at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center on July 12, 2016 in Dallas, Texas.

He was followed by Dallas Police Chief David Brown, who received a standing ovation and whom Mayor Michael Rawlings called "my rock" and a representative of police across the country.

Brown took a un orthodoz but touching tack, reading the lyrics to Stevie Wonder's "As," that he dedicated to the families of the five slain officers:

"We all know sometimes life's hates and troubles
Can make you wish you were born in another time and space
But you can bet you life times that and twice its double
That God knew exactly where he wanted you to be placed."

Obama's visit marked the 11th time during his presidency that he'd visited scenes of mass shootings to offer condolences, most recently last month in Orlando.

The crowd at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center as packed with officers, many of them joining Obama and former President George W. Bush on stage. Every officer in the house wore yellow ribbons. In the front row sat family members of all five dead officers. Nearby were five empty chairs, adorned with the officer's service hats and American flags folded into triangles.

Also in attendance were Vice President Joseph Biden and mayors and governors from around the country.

Rawlings said the pain was particularly sharp because the dead officers were targeted as they protected a peaceful rally against police shootings, and because Dallas had earned a reputation for mending decades old wounds between police and the local black community.

"I have searched hard in my soul of late for what mistakes we have made. I've asked, 'why us,' and in my moments of self doubt I found the truth: that we did nothing wrong,' Rawlings said. "In fact, Dallas is very, very good. Our police are among the best in the country. I'm in awe of our police officers."