After Sarah Palin targeted her district with a gunsight on a map identifying Democrats Palin was urging her followers to "reload" and defeat, Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords said: "We are on Sarah Palin’s targeted list. The way that she has it depicted has the crosshairs of the gunsight over our district. When people do that, they have got to realize there are consequences to that action."
On Saturday, Giffords, a moderate Democrat who stirred the wrath of right-wingers with her vote for healthcare reform, was shot by a gunman who posted "I can’t trust the government" videos on the Internet and appears to have been obsessed with the teachings of a right-wing anti-tax activist. The shooting spree killed six people, including a federal judge and a nine-year-old girl, and left thirteen others injured.
Now, Palin says she’s praying for the dead and wounded, including Giffords, who remained in critical condition Monday morning.
As flags were lowered to half staff Monday and plans were made for a national moment of silence, another targeted Arizona representative, Congressman Raul Grijalva, bluntly declared that: "Ms. Palin needs to look at her own behavior."
And the sheriff of the county where the shooting took place says: "It’s time to do a little soul searching about the rhetoric we hear…"
The incident has sparked a national dialogue about violent political rhetoric and political violence. While Palin is in the thick of it, as is so often the case, the dialogue goes to a deeper place—and to deeper questions about how a democracy maintains a robust national debate while maintaining the measure of civility that invites rather than repels public participation.
Giffords is likely to survive the apparent assassination attempt at a community event in Tucson. Doctors are struggling to minimize the threat of a permanent brain injury.
Six others, including Federal Judge John Roll, were killed in the rampage outside a Tucson supermarket. Roll, who was appointed to the federal bench by George H.W. Bush in 1991, has served as Chief Judge of the US District Court in Arizona since 2006. Roll, who presided in 2009 over a $32 million civil-rights lawsuit filed by immigrants against an Arizona rancher, had faced death threats.
So, too, had Congresswoman Giffords. And Arizona authorities said there was little doubt that the gunman came to the meeting looking to shoot Giffords, not Roll.
The target of a highly controversial campaign for her defeat in 2010 by former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, Giffords was one of twenty House members whose district was marked with a gunsight target in a SarahPAC message that had Palin telling her ardent backers: "It’s Time to Take a Stand."
After the health-care vote, Palin urged her minions to "reload" and go after the targeted members of the House.
Palin was talking politics, but she used the language on gun-play and hunting for prey.
Despite Palin’s campaigning, Giffords was reelected.
On Saturday, however, she was felled by a gunshot wound to the head, after a shooting spree that saw many as eighteen people were hit. The assailant, who is in custody, has been identified as Jared Lee Loughner, a 22-year-old white male who posted YouTube videos that included rants about immigrants and the government. Loughner’s statements track closely with those of David Wynn Miller, an anti-government conspiracy theorist. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hatewatch blog details instances where Loughner’s writings echo the language of "the antigovernment ‘Patriot’ movement that produced so much violence in the 1990s."
Loughner apparently stalked Giffords, attending previous community meetings she held and notes found in his home mentioned Giffords along with a reference to "My assassination." Apparently frustrated by her political success, he criticized the voters of Giffords’s district, complaining that: "The majority of people who reside in District 8 are illiterate…"
While Loughner’s political statements came in the context of broader rants — and a personal history — that clearly suggested he was unstable, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik observed that "when you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain people’s mouths about tearing down the government, the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. And, unfortunately, Arizona I believe has become sort of the capital. We have become the Mecca for prejudice and bigotry.”
"It’s time to do a little soul searching about the rhetoric we hear on the radio, how are children are being raised," the sheriff added.
A shaken President Obama described the shooting spree as "a tragedy for Arizona and a tragedy for our country," and dispatched the director of the FBI to Arizona to help coordinate the investigation. The president huddled throughout the day with top security officials and made numerous calls to key Democratic and Republican congressional leaders regarding the incident, which led House leaders to suspend on health-care repeal and other issues that had been scheduled for this week.
Federal officials and police moved over the weekend to provide extra security for other nenbers of Congress who might be targeted by assassins. Congressman Raul Grijalva, D-Arizona, whose strong support of immigrant rights inspired attacks on his offices and death threats.
"The climate has gotten so toxic in our political discourse, setting up for this kind of reaction for too long. It’s unfortunate to say that. I hate to say that," Grijalva said Saturday. "If you’re an opponent, you’re a deadly enemy."
Referring to those who employ violent language to attack those they disagree with, Grijalva said: "Anybody who contributed to feeding this monster had better step back and realize they’re threatening our form of government." In particular, he called out Palin, saying: "Ms. Palin needs to look at her own behavior, and if she wants to help the public discourse, the best thing she could do is to keep quiet."
Giffords was one of several Arizona Democratic US House members who were targeted with violence and death threats last year—both in relation to their support for healthcare reform and to their stances they have taken on immigration reform issues.
Giffords’s office was attacked after she voted for the health-reform bill last March, and her friend, Sylvie Lee, told reporters Saturday that "there have been threats" against the Jewish congresswoman.
In the summer of 2009, when health-care reform debates raged, police were called to a town-hall meeting at which Giffords was confronted regarding the issue. One of the attendees had dropped a gun.
But Giffords remained remarkably open and accessible, continuing to hold public events as the immigration issue heated up and she was targeted for defeat by a Tea Party–backed Republican in one of the most intense races of 2010.
Giffords won the contest by a 49-47 margin and began her third term this week.
The congresswoman was conscious of the threats she faced—discussing them broadly and specifically addressed Palin’s over-the-top targeting. Yet, she remained remarkably accessible to her constituents and critics.
Giffords returned to Tucson this weekend for the public event outside a local grocery store. An hour before the event, the 40-year-old congresswoman wrote on Twitter: "My 1st Congress on Your Corner starts now. Please stop by to let me know what is on your mind or tweet me later."
Around 10 a.m. Arizona time, Giffords was holding one of her regularly scheduled “Congress on Your Corner” sessions—where the Blue Dog Democrat talks with constituents about issues that are concerning them. The gunman ran up and began shot her point-blank in the head.
A shocked Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat who has worked closely with Giffords on a number of issues, focused on the fact that the congresswoman was meeting with constituents when the shooting took place. And she worried about the threat to our discourse.
"Rep. Giffords was meeting with her constituents, holding public office hours to better serve them," said Baldwin. "Communication between citizens and their elected representatives is critical to the proper functioning of our democracy. There is no place for violence, under any circumstances."