The shooting rampage in Tucson, Arizona, that killed six people and left U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords in critical condition is contributing at least momentarily to a cooling of U.S. political rhetoric.
The incident on Jan. 8, coming after the Jan. 5 opening of a new Congress in which Republicans took control of the U.S. House, led the House to postpone legislative business for the coming week as both parties rushed to condemn the attack.
It is also likely to hurt the image of former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, said Ross Baker, a congressional scholar at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
The former Republican vice presidential candidate has posted on the Internet a map of the U.S. with the cross-hair symbols for a rifle scope dotting the home states of lawmakers, including Giffords, whom she was targeting for defeat in the 2010 congressional election.
The tragedy “will take some of the edge off of the polarization” and “will be used by lots of people as an exhortation for people to be kinder to each other,” said Baker. At the same time, Palin’s brand of “female macho,” he said, “is not going to wear very well after this.”
Lawmakers were careful to stress that the suspected shooter, identified as 22-year-old Jared Loughner, has a troubled past and appears mentally unstable. Regardless of whether it is determined that Loughner also had political motivations, members of both parties said politicians and the media play a role in setting an example of civility.
“We are in a dark place in this country right now; the atmospheric condition is toxic,” Representative Emanuel Cleaver, a Missouri Democrat, said yesterday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program. “Much of it originates here in Washington D.C., and we export it around the country.”
“My colleagues are very concerned about the environment in which they are operating,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” The Maryland Democrat termed the political climate in recent years an “angrier, confrontational environment,” and cautioned that “what we say can, in fact, have consequences.”
Republicans also said it’s time for members of both parties to come together.
“We ought to cool it, tone it down, treat each other with great respect,” Tennessee Republican Senator Lamar Alexander said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
House Speaker John Boehner ordered flags on the House side of the U.S. Capitol flown at half-staff to commemorate those killed, who included U.S. District Judge John Roll. “An attack on one who serves is an attack on all who serve,” Boehner said at a press conference yesterday in West Chester, Ohio. “Such acts of violence have no place in our society.”
Senator Mike Lee, a newly elected Republican from Utah interviewed on CNN, said “any time you have political rhetoric that rises to the level of personal, you have a problem.”
Planned legislative business in the House is being postponed for the coming week, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican, said in a statement yesterday. The House had planned to vote Jan. 12 on a repeal of Obama’s health-care overhaul. The House instead will consider that day at least one resolution honoring Giffords and other victims in the attack, according to Cantor’s office.
President Barack Obama has postponed a Jan. 11 trip to Schenectady, New York, and called for a national moment of silence today at 11 a.m. Eastern time.
The shooting put a spotlight on Palin. Last year, Giffords was one of 20 Democrats who supported health-care legislation who were targeted on the crosshairs map for defeat by Palin’s political action committee, SarahPAC, in last November’s elections.
An aide to Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate, said the images were never meant to evoke violence. “We never ever, ever intended it to be gun sights,” Rebecca Mansour told the talk radio host Tammy Bruce in an interview transcribed by the Alaska Dispatch.
Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the chamber’s No. 2 Democrat, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that such images aren’t helpful. “These sorts of things, I think, invite the kind of toxic rhetoric that can lead unstable people to believe this is an acceptable response.”
Conservative public relations executive Keith Appell issued a statement saying “some in the media have implicated conservatives, the Tea Party, talk radio, Republicans, etc., by extension” in the shooting and that those efforts are “insidious, dishonest and divorced from reality.” He cited a posting on the Website redstate.com saying the media is trying to blame conservatives for the shootings.
The tragedy is also prompting calls from lawmakers for greater security at political events that are often open to the public.
“It needs to be a wake-up call for members who’ve treated their own personal security in a cavalier way,” said Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida Democrat who said she always has police officers present at her events.
“It’s not just our personal safety that matters, it’s also the personal safety of our constituents,” she said on the “Meet the Press” program. “We need to strike a balance.”
Impossible to Stop
Still, some security experts are cautioning there are no easy solutions. “It’s impossible to stop,” William Pickle, a former Senate Sergeant at Arms, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“Until candidates stop campaigning, these things are going to continue to happen,” said Pickle, who also said there aren’t resources to protect 535 congressmen and senators.
Boehner said he has asked the House’s Sergeant at Arms, U.S. Capitol Police and the FBI to conduct a security overview for members on Jan. 12.
Giffords, 40, herself warned last year about the tone of the rhetoric in her district after her office was vandalized.
“The way that she has it depicted has the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district. When people do that, they have to realize that there are consequences to that action,” Giffords said in an interview with MSNBC.
Her father told the New York Post that “the whole Tea Party” was her enemy, referring to the loose-knit national group pressing for smaller government and less taxes.
Giffords, first elected to her seat in 2006, narrowly won a third term in November over a Tea-Party backed Republican.
Representative Raul Labrador, a newly elected Republican from Idaho elected with Tea Party support, said on “Meet the Press” that a level of vitriol exists on both sides of the ideological divide.
“We have to be careful not to blame one side or the other,” Labrador said. “You have crazy people on both sides.”
Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, whose jurisdiction includes Tucson, said yesterday that while officials don’t know the gunman’s motives, he was concerned about extreme rhetoric in the U.S.
“The anger, the hatred, the bigotry has gotten out of control,” Dupnik said. “Unfortunately, Arizona has become sort of the capital. This has become the Mecca for bigotry and prejudice.”
Representative Trent Franks, an Arizona Republican, said on “Meet the Press” that Loughner is “a deranged lunatic that had no respect for his fellow human beings and completely rejected any kind of constitutional foundation of this nation.”