Leaders of both parties struggled to find their footing this week in a political landscape dramatically altered—at least temporarily—by a gunman’s attack on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others in Tucson last weekend. Police said the accused killer, Jared Lee Loughner, 22, opened fire as Giffords met with constituents at a “Congress on Your Corner’’ event. Loughner allegedly shot and wounded Giffords, then sprayed the crowd with bullets from a semiautomatic Glock pistol, as people dove for cover. Federal judge John Roll and 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green were among the six dead. When Loughner stopped to reload, two men wrestled him to the ground and restrained him until police arrived.
Although there was no evidence that Loughner, a disturbed community college dropout, had any coherent political views, the violence sparked a national debate over the impact of extreme political rhetoric. Visibly shaken members of Congress and hundreds of staff members gathered on the Capitol steps for a moment of silence. Speaker of the House John Boehner postponed a House vote on the Republicans’ effort to repeal the health-care plan passed by Democrats last year. “At a time when an individual has shown us humanity at its worst,” said Boehner, “we must rise to the occasion for our nation and show Congress at its best.”
Giffords, 40, was shot in the head, with the bullet passing through the left side of her brain. Doctors say she will survive, though they cautioned that brain injuries frequently leave victims impaired. Prosecutors charged Loughner with the attempted assassination of Giffords and the murders of six people. Police say Loughner, who had posted disjointed statements on mind control, grammar, and “currency” on the Internet, had focused on Giffords since 2007.
What the editorials said
There appears to be no “direct connection” between political vitriol and the shooting, said The Christian Science Monitor. But “threats against members of Congress have risen dramatically in the last year or so, including vandalism at Giffords’ Tucson office.” Giffords’ GOP opponent held a campaign event last summer at which supporters fired an M16 as part of the campaign to “remove” Giffords from office, said The Philadelphia Inquirer. The promiscuous use of “violent metaphors’’ by politicians and partisan TV and radio provocateurs “can make an impact on unbalanced people,’’ whose rage sometimes “can’t be turned off at the end of a radio show.’’
How typical of the liberal media to blame conservatives for this tragedy, instead of the “deranged soul’’ who perpetrated it, said The Wall Street Journal. Blood was still on the pavement in Tucson when a Democratic operative reportedly was urging the White House “to deftly pin this on the Tea Partiers,’’ just as Bill Clinton blamed his critics for the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. That’s an outrageous effort to suppress legitimate dissent.
What the columnists said
Most of us expected this to happen, sooner or later, said Paul Krugman in The New York Times. Strong rhetoric is one thing; but it’s something else again to warn of the possible need for “Second Amendment remedies,’’ as Tea Party Senate candidate Sharron Angle did last year, or to urge conservatives to be “armed and dangerous,’’ as U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann recently did. The Right’s “eliminationist’’ rhetoric is clearly suggesting that Democrats “must be removed’’ from government “by whatever means necessary,’’ and nuts are listening.
“Rarely in American political discourse has there been a charge so reckless, so scurrilous, and so unsupported by evidence,” said Charles Krauthammer in The Washington Post. There is nothing to suggest that Loughner “was responding to anything, political or otherwise, outside his own head.” He began targeting Giffords three years ago—before anyone outside of Alaska had heard of Sarah Palin, before Barack Obama was president. At a 2008 fundraiser, Obama said of Republicans: “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun.” Is he, too, fomenting a “climate of hate”?
But it’s not Democrats who’ve made “the rhetoric of armed revolt against an oppressive tyranny” central to their politics, said George Packer in NewYorker.com. Only one side in the political debate encourages supporters to display guns “as a form of swagger and intimidation.” And only one thrills to the “violent imagery” of Sarah Palin, who divides Americans into “us and them, real and fake,” and stokes resentment of “elites.’’
Compare that blatantly partisan analysis with the reaction to the Fort Hood shooting last year, said James Taranto in WSJ.com. When Maj. Malik Nadal Hasan, a Muslim, gunned down 13 people, The New York Times counseled us all “to avoid prejudicial conclusions” about the killer’s motive. But when Loughner allegedly went on his killing spree, the Newspaper of Record quickly called it “political violence,’’ and laid responsibility on conservatives and Tea Party members. That is nothing less than “slander.’’
While partisans jockey for advantage, “the most important and least contestable facts are getting lost,” said William Galston in The New Republic online. Loughner demonstrated “multiple signs of his descent into delusion,” but under the overly broad legal protections afforded the mentally ill, it’s virtually impossible to commit a delusional adult until after he’s committed a crime. Civil libertarians will object, but we need to change the law so that it’s possible to take seriously disturbed individuals like Loughner, and the student who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech, off the streets. How many more deaths will it take?