A tragic afternoon in Tucson

President Josiah Bartlet:

The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels tonight. They’re our students and our teachers and our parents and our friends. The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels, but every time we think we have measured our capacity to meet a challenge, we look up and we’re reminded that that capacity may well be limitless. This is a time for American heroes. We will do what is hard. We will achieve what is great. This is a time for American heroes and we reach for the stars.

Today, Representative Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head while meeting constituents at a Tucson supermarket. John Roll – Arizona’s chief federal trial judge, and a 9 year-old child were killed by the gunman, as were 4 other bystanders. At least 19 people were killed or wounded, and witnesses report at least twenty shots fired from a semiautomatic pistol.

Staffers and others sheltered Giffords where she fell, between a US flag and an Arizona state flag. One witness who rushed to her aid was also felled in the gunfire.

Earlier today, shooter Jared Loughner posted a “goodbye” message on his Myspace page, asking friends “Please don’t be mad at me.” He, and perhaps an accomplice, took a pistol and heading off to confront Rep. Giffords, a Democrat who just began her third term in office. His Myspace page and Youtube rants include discussion of new US currency, as well as discussion of mind control and brainwashing. A community college he used to attend expelled him because of a Youtube post, and officials say he could not have returned without a mental health evaluation. He was refused enlistment in the Army. Despite all that, a state law in effect since last August means that Loughner hadn’t broken any law until he put the pistol to his Representative’s head and pulled the trigger.

Local law enforcement is looking for a second suspect, an older white man.

Giffords is apparently doing well in surgery, and doctors expect her to recover. Her husband is training to pilot the space shuttle mission in April, and her brother-in-law is on the International Space Station right now. Giffords was a moderate Democrat, but her offices were vandalized last March after she voted for Affordable Care. She won re-election narrowly, fending off a challenge by teabaggers, teabaggers backed by Sarah Palin and a website that put crosshairs over incumbents being targeted for re-election.

Meanwhile, federal judge Roll had only recently emerged from high security protection by Marshals, after presiding over a lawsuit brought against a rancher by Latino civil rights groups representing illegal immigrants:

When Roll ruled the case could go forward, [U.S. Marshal David] Gonzales said talk-radio shows cranked up the controversy and spurred audiences into making threats.

In one afternoon, Roll logged more than 200 phone calls. Callers threatened the judge and his family. They posted personal information about Roll online.

“They said, ‘We should kill him. He should be dead,’ ” Gonzales said.

Roll, who is the chief federal judge in Arizona, said both he and his wife were given a protection detail for about a month.

“It was unnerving and invasive. . . . By its nature it has to be,” Roll said, adding that they were encouraged to live their lives as normally as possible. “It was handled very professionally by the Marshals Service.”

At the end of the month, Roll said four key men had been identified as threat makers.

We still don’t know why Loughner decided to draw his gun today. We know he killed one dedicated public servant, and put a bullet through another’s head from point blank range. We know he sprayed the crowd, a crowd who had come to engage with their elected Representative. We know some of Rep. Giffords’s staff are in the hospital, after working a long day on a weekend, at jobs that always ask too much and pay too little. We know he killed a federal judge, whether by accident or by intent isn’t clear. We don’t know why he did this.

It’s entirely possible that he is mentally ill and no rational explanation is possible beyond that. But given the violence directed at Giffords and Judge Roll before, we have to ask whether his actions, though influenced by an irrational and unreasonable inability to understand or control his murderous impulses, may also have been channeled and given direction by the violent rhetoric of the 2010 campaign and the Tea Party politics that we’ve lived with since the 2008 election.

Sarah Palin quickly pulled down the website that put crosshairs over candidates including Giffords, but she ought to do more. She and the radio shows that stirred violence against Judge Roll, and all whose rhetoric strays into violence and eliminationism, ought to do some introspection about what could have been said differently, what might have dissuaded their followers from violence. Palin, like many in the Tea Party movement, catapulted from obscurity to the limelight, and rhetoric that might be harmless from a half-term governor of an oft-ignored state has different consequences when issued by the former Republican vice presidential nominee and leading candidate for the 2012 Republican nomination.

The local sheriff made his view on the matter clear to reporters, telling them “The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. And unfortunately, I think Arizona has become sort of the capital, we have become the Mecca for prejudice and bigotry. … There’s reason to believe that this individual might have a mental issue, and I think that people who are unbalanced might be especially susceptible to vitriol.”

But Giffords has given us a sense of her position as well. When the House went back into session last week they opened the year with a reading of the Constitution, and Giffords was proud to have a chance to read the First Amendment into the record:

We shouldn’t diminish her commitment to the founding principles of this nation by punishing free speech, or demonizing people whose rhetoric inadvertently led to violence. But neither should we restrict our own speech opposing violent rhetoric, nor should we silence demands for accountability where appropriate. We can only honor Giffords’s pride in our nation’s freedom by demanding a civil but forceful conversation about the national discourse, a conversation we needed well before this tragedy. Let us be guided by our better angels.

Comments

  1. #1 EMJ
    January 8, 2011

    One of the most thoughtful pieces I’ve read on this terrible event. Thank you.

  2. #2 Tristan
    January 8, 2011

    We shouldn’t diminish her commitment to the founding principles of this nation by punishing free speech, or demonizing people whose rhetoric inadvertently led to violence.

    I agree that inflammatory rhetoric shouldn’t lead to criminal sanctions, but I think it could only improve the political climate if election rules stated that the use of violent imagery and rhetoric by candidates was grounds for disqualification from the race.

  3. #3 Clam
    January 8, 2011

    … and the right for the mentally unstable to bear arms …

  4. #4 David Dobbs
    January 8, 2011

    Nicely done, Josh.

  5. #5 Kerrick
    January 8, 2011

    Freedom of speech doesn’t give anyone the right to incite violence or make threats—even less so our leaders and public servants. Anyone holding political office who uses that office to make threats and incite violence ought to have that office stripped from them. If I used my job as a platform to make threats, my employer would be within her rights to fire me, my right to free speech notwithstanding.

    Leaders who use words and imagery designed to incite violence may not necessarily be responsible for the violence that follows, but they must not be allowed to escape responsibility for the words. “It’s just rhetoric” is just an excuse.

  6. #6 SteveN
    January 9, 2011

    Good job, Josh

  7. #7 Leslie
    January 9, 2011

    Thank you

  8. #8 capsiplex
    January 9, 2011

    I used my job as a platform to make threats, my employer would be within her rights to fire me, my right to free speech notwithstanding.

  9. #9 Antiquated Tory
    January 9, 2011

    It’s where the social norms have gone. America has always been a place where people have guns and where people occasionally shoot public servants. But it’s never been OK to shoot public servants. Sane, civilized people recognize that we have to maintain a social consensus where shooting people is not OK. Palin and the other people pushing the Second-Amendment-defense-against-Socialism meme have abandoned their responsibility to maintain that consensus, which is an abandonment of their responsibility to maintain a civilized society. I’m surprised it’s taken this long for anyone to be shot as a result, frankly.

  10. #10 Chris
    January 9, 2011

    Rosenau,

    What a despicable post. Leave it to a lib to use a horrible attack like this to advance your political agenda. You don’t know this guy’s motives. He’s obviously nuts, likely schizophrenic. There is at least as much hatred and vitriol from the left as there is from the right. Googling Bush-Hitler yields 300,000 results. Sarah Palin is hated by the left (recall the lynched mannequin?). I don’t recall your posts decrying all of the hatred against conservatives.

    I also point out that Giffords was a Blue-Dog Democrat, and was a former Republican. If she was attacked for her views, how sure are you that she was attacked for her left-wing views, rather than her right-wing views?

    Blaming the right for this horrible attack is like blaming the left for JFK’s assassination. Did liberal opposition to JFK incite Oswald, a leftist, to kill him? The left has a record of large scale political violence in this country (remember the Weather Underground).

    Leave the politics out of this horrible mass-killing.

  11. #11 NBR
    January 9, 2011

    Responding to Chris, who says a thoughtful, intensely-felt but carefully-balanced blog post is “despicable.”

    Of course we do not know exactly what motivated Jared Loughner to shoot a congresswoman, a judge, a 9-year-old child and all those other people. But we do know the political context in which he acted. It is not, as you suggest, the Cold War context of JFK’s assassination or the Vietnam-angry era of the Weather Underground. It is the time in which Tea Partiers and right-wing pols use graphics (such as Palin’s website crosshairs) or words (e.g.”second amendment solutions”) to justify, advocate or excuse acts of violence.

    What left-winger is advocating political assassination today, much as they may despise the ideas and actions of some opposition pols? What liberal is willing to accept murder for political ends (for instance of an abortion doctor in his church)?

    Comparing President Bush to Hitler is, yes, over-the-top rhetoric, but it is not advocating his assassination. Hanging someone in effigy is not the same as to advocate shooting that person.

    I’m not, as you suggest, blaming the right for this horrible attack, but I do blame them for making it easier for a deranged young man to let loose his “worser” angels at local politicians and to somehow think it is acceptable behavior.

  12. #12 Josh Rosenau
    January 9, 2011

    Chris: You aren’t responding to what I actually wrote. I made it clear that we don’t know the motives, and whether or not he’s mentally ill or even schizophrenic, that isn’t enough to explain his violence.

    The claim that there is as much violent rhetoric on the left and the right is absurd. Giffords’s office was vandalized because she voted to reduce our deficit and make health insurance more affordable for everyone. I don’t recall anything like that directed against folks who voted against Affordable Care. I don’t recall anyone suggesting “second amendment remedies” to the Bush wars, nor to the torture and illegal wiretapping. I don’t recall people carrying assault rifles and pistols to protests in the Bush years, but they were ubiquitous at teabagger rallies in recent years. The claim of equivalence is absurd. If we must make a comparison, and I don’t see how this relates to violent rhetoric of the sort at issue here, let’s note that “Obama-Hitler” gets you 5,680,000 hits on Google, almost 20 times the number for “Bush-Hitler.”

    If I lived 40 years ago, I’d be interested in a discussion of the Weathermen and JFK’s killing. But I live today, in an age when violent rhetoric from the right is not marginalized, as it was with the Weathermen. I live in an age where violent, militaristic language was the reason Sharon Angle nearly unseated the Senate Majority Leader, where it has been taken up by the leading candidate for the 2012 Republican nomination, and where it has issued from the halls of Congress. I hadn’t heard about effigy, but it turns out to be a Halloween decoration, and it was called out by, among others, Keith Olbermann. Meanwhile, Glenn Beck refers to himself as a “progressive hunter,” and urges his listeners to “drive a stake through the heart” of liberals. He jokes about putting poison in Nancy Pelosi’s wine. He told a graduation class: “Shoot to kill.” His words have incited violence before, and no one seems to mind.

    The left marginalizes even mildly hateful or violent language, while the right has taken to encouraging it.

    There is no equivalence here, and suggesting there is simply isn’t OK.

  13. #13 science-based humanist
    January 9, 2011

    Good post, thanks. Having read the excellent series in Washington Post about US guns fueling violence in border towns in Mexico and the stranglehold that NRA has over politicians from both parties, I am writing to express my outrage about the fact that a semi-automatic weapon is owned by a civilian, never mind whether he’s got all his marbles or not or what his politics are, who is walking among us. It’s so utterly obvious that if he had to do this thing with a knife or an axe, or even a rifle, he couldn’t have done as much damage. Let’s see if the administration musters the political courage to move forward with this proposal on the heels of this horrid event-http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/12/17/AR2010121706598.html?nav=emailpage.

  14. #14 Josh Rosenau
    January 9, 2011

    Chris: You aren’t responding to what I actually wrote. I made it clear that we don’t know the motives, and whether or not he’s mentally ill or even schizophrenic, that isn’t enough to explain his violence.

    The claim that there is as much violent rhetoric on the left and the right is absurd. Giffords’s office was vandalized because she voted to reduce our deficit and make health insurance more affordable for everyone. I don’t recall anything like that directed against folks who voted against Affordable Care. I don’t recall anyone suggesting “second amendment remedies” to the Bush wars, nor to the torture and illegal wiretapping. I don’t recall people carrying assault rifles and pistols to protests in the Bush years, but they were ubiquitous at teabagger rallies in recent years. The claim of equivalence is absurd. If we must make a comparison, and I don’t see how this relates to violent rhetoric of the sort at issue here, let’s note that “Obama-Hitler” gets you 5,680,000 hits on Google, almost 20 times the number for “Bush-Hitler.”

    If I lived 40 years ago, I’d be interested in a discussion of the Weathermen and JFK’s killing. But I live today, in an age when violent rhetoric from the right is not marginalized, as it was with the Weathermen. I live in an age where violent, militaristic language was the reason Sharon Angle nearly unseated the Senate Majority Leader, where it has been taken up by the leading candidate for the 2012 Republican nomination, and where it has issued from the halls of Congress. I hadn’t heard about effigy, but it turns out to be a Halloween decoration, and it was called out by, among others, Keith Olbermann. Meanwhile, Glenn Beck refers to himself as a “progressive hunter,” and urges his listeners to “drive a stake through the heart” of liberals. He jokes about putting poison in Nancy Pelosi’s wine. He told a graduation class: “Shoot to kill.” His words have incited violence before, and no one seems to mind.

    The left marginalizes even mildly hateful or violent language, while the right has taken to encouraging it.

    There is no equivalence here, and suggesting there is simply isn’t OK.

  15. #15 DW
    January 10, 2011

    You wrote at the top: “Despite all that, a state law in effect since last August means that Loughner hadn’t broken any law until he put the pistol to his Representative’s head and pulled the trigger.”

    What are you referring to with “Despite all that” ? Trying to figure out what he had done before the murders that was illegal and justified his arrest.

    What did the state law you mentioned allow that led to these murderd? Have you heard that the brave, neutral local sheriff knew something we don’t about Laughner that his office ignored? Or do you believe that posting “Myspace page and Youtube rants include discussion of new US currency, as well as discussion of mind control and brainwashing” and being expelled from community college and denied enlistment in the Army should be criminalized?

  16. #16 DW
    January 10, 2011

    Also – I assume that everyone linking this scum to right-wing anything (Palin, Beck, Limbaugh, Tea Party) will shortly be providing us with some *substantive* link between Laughlin and conservatives.

    I mean, he apparently had an altar of skulls, was a pothead and a metal fan, so that’s pretty much proof right there that he’s a typical conservative Tea Party person. Remember all those atheist/occultist weed fiend headbangers and their angry rhetoric against Health Care reform at rallies and Town Halls?! Those freaks are always susceptible to talk about deficit cuts and originalist readings of the Constitution while eating bags of Doritos!

    So it’s fine, based on that proof alone, to dominate this media cycle with assertions that right-wing rhetoric and web graphics are to blame, but before we honor Giffords and Christina Taylor Green by enacting new, civil,and caring non-partisan legislation limiting speech that we define as hateful or incendiary, we will probably be asked by some lowlife for some proof that Laughner was a devotee of any mainstream conservative.

  17. #17 northern va seo service
    January 11, 2011

    The local sheriff made his view on the matter clear to reporters, telling them “The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. And unfortunately, I think Arizona has become sort of the capital, we have become the Mecca for prejudice and bigotry. … There’s reason to believe that this individual might have a mental issue, and I think that people who are unbalanced might be especially susceptible to vitriol.”- The Arizona state should be aware of the people esp. the youth of what they are doing. Put a program for everybody that makes them participate.

  18. #18 Josh Rosenau
    January 11, 2011

    DW: “Despite all that…” was to signal: “Despite being an obvious loon, he was able to buy a gun and extended clips and ammo for the clips, and carry a weapon loaded with 30 rounds around in public with the intent of killing his Congresswoman and anyone else in the neighborhood, and there was no legal obstacle to him doing that until he pulled the trigger. A cop who stopped at any point before then would have been exceeding his authority.

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