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.