Originally published January 9, 2011 at 6:03 p.m., updated January 10, 2011 at 10:36 a.m.
Elected officials say violent threats occasionally come with the job, but many politicians assert that the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others reflects a culture that has become too heated and rife with instigation to violence.
The shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) has raised concerns about the effect of inflammatory language that has become a steady undercurrent in the nation's political culture.
Saturday's shooting spree, which killed U.S. District Judge John M. Roll and five others, followed years of hot political debate in Arizona. Both Roll and Giffords had been the subject of threats in recent years.
Arizona has become one of the most reliably conservative states, particularly in the debates over immigration and health care — two issues that put Giffords, a moderate Democrat, and Roll at odds with many Arizonans.
Members of Congress and other elected officials say violent threats occasionally come with the job, but many politicians and others assert that the shootings reflect a national political culture that has become too heated and rife with instigations to violence.
"Hopefully this gives the nation pause, and we can temper down the vitriol towards politicians," Rep. John Larson (D-CT) told reporters outside his home Saturday night. In a press conference on Sunday, Larson said Democratic and Republican lawmakers this week will discuss taking new safety precautions, such as requesting a local police presence when they make official appearances in their districts.
In the Senate last year, the number of significant threats directed at members increased to 49 from 29 in 2009, according to the chamber’s sergeant-at-arms.
In April 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center found "a perfect storm of conditions" contributing to Americans' distrust of government, including "a dismal economy, an unhappy public, bitter partisan-based backlash and epic discontent with Congress and elected officials."
Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups, says inflammatory political rhetoric has risen as a result of the immigration debate. And more recently, he says, the weak economy and the election of President Obama have led to a 50 percent increase in the number of so-called hate groups.
"Earlier in the decade, it was paramilitary groups and nativists who were reacting to illegal immigration," Potok said. "But then you have the first black president and the economy, which just exacerbates the feeling among some whites that they are losing opportunities, or losing their country.
"Now you're seeing a cross-fertilization between those groups from the early 2000s and the people who are upset over Obama and the economy."
Some lawmakers remain circumspect about drawing such conclusions. Giffords' colleague from Arizona, Republican Rep. Trent Franks, declined to say Sunday whether he believes the shootings were motivated in any part by a heightened vitriol in public discourse.
"The central element here is this unhinged lunatic that had no respect for innocent human life [who] was willing to make some grand statement. I don't even know if he understands what statement he was trying to make," Franks said on CNN's State of the Union. "There is really the central problem — a lack for respect for human life."
Political Fallout In Congress
Lawmakers in both parties over the weekend avoided speculating about any political fallout from the shooting.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) decided to suspend legislative activity scheduled for this week, a move that at least temporarily prevents another potential escalation in the debate over the health care law. That issue has led to previous threats against Giffords and stirred much of the vitriol characterizing politics over the past two years.
Repealing the health care law is one of the Republicans' top priorities in the new session. The measure is all but assured of passage in the Republican House and rejection by the Democratic-controlled Senate.
In a news conference on Sunday, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said the incident should remind his colleagues that their job "comes with a risk." However, he said, "No act … must be allowed to stop us from our duty."
Security personnel aren't assigned to House members, and many lawmakers say they likely won't scale back their public appearances. Often, though, large events in House members' districts do include a local police presence.
Protecting lawmakers has become more difficult in the last decade, said William Pickle, a former Senate sergeant-at-arms. Appearing Sunday on CNN's State of the Union, he said the availability of information on the Internet can guide would-be plotters — even as demands for lawmakers to make public appearances have increased.
"The very nature of being a public official is one where you have to press the flesh. You want as much exposure as you can possibly have. That's not going to end," Pickle said. "We are going to fall back into being complacent again. I hate to say that, but we will. We do not have the resources to protect 535 congressmen and senators."
Pickle, also a retired Secret Service agent who once oversaw the protection of Vice President Al Gore, added that the threats are "impossible to stop. Until candidates stop campaigning, these things tragically are going to continue happening."
Feeling The Heat In Arizona
Some Arizona politicians from both parties say the incident demonstrates the need to defuse their state’s highly charged discourse.
The health care overhaul has been a flashpoint for Giffords' constituents. In August 2009, when opponents of the health care bill held demonstrations across the nation, a protester at one of Giffords' events was removed by police when a pistol he had holstered under his armpit dropped to the floor.
Last March, after the bill passed — with Giffords' support — the windows of her Tucson office were broken or shot out by vandals. Similar acts of vandalism against other members of Congress were also reported, including a controversial allegation that a Tea Party demonstrator spat on an African-American congressman while other demonstrators shouted racial epithets. Tea Party leaders have challenged those claims.
But in Arizona, the most divisive issue has been immigration. Arizona is home to many of the staunchest opponents of citizenship for illegal immigrants. It also has the nation's toughest law aimed at identifying, prosecuting and deporting illegal immigrants.
Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, a Democrat and friend of Giffords, lambasted his home state on Saturday as "the Mecca for prejudice and bigotry."
"When you look at unbalanced people," Dupnik said, referring to accused shooter Jared Lee Loughner, "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."
Last year, Dupnik vowed his deputies wouldn't enforce the state's new immigration law, calling it "racist" and "unnecessary."
Also last year, Dupnik accused Tea Party activists of bigotry and stifling rational debate on immigration — adding that "We didn’t have a Tea Party until we had a black president."
Arizona Tea Party leaders vehemently denied Dupnik's accusations and noted that they didn't take a public position on the immigration law. On Saturday, local Tea Party leaders released statements expressing condolences to the shooting victims' families. They also sought to distance their groups from any suggestion that Loughner was a Tea Party activist or that his attack was politically motivated.
Giffords narrowly won a third term in November against Jesse Kelly, a Republican backed by the Tea Party. Last June, Kelly held an event promoted with the message: "Get on Target for Victory in November… Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office… Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly."
"They're jumping to this conclusion that it has to do with [Giffords'] hotly contested Congressional race," Allyson Miller, a founder of Pima County Tea Party Patriots, told the website TalkingPointsMemo. "Well, apparently, from what I've seen so far ... it's looking like that's not the case."
Miller and other Tea Party leaders said they won't change their aggressive tactics in the wake of the shootings.
The Crosshairs Controversy
During the midterm elections, Giffords and other Democratic House candidates were featured on the website of Sarah Palin's political action committee with crosshairs over their districts. Giffords, disturbed at the reference, said at the time, "When people do that, they have got to realize there's consequences to that."
In a Sunday interview with talk radio host Tammy Bruce, Rebecca Mansour, who works for Palin's PAC, said the images of crosshairs weren't intended to evoke violence: "We never ever, ever intended it to be gun sights," she said.
The images were removed from the website this weekend.
On Sunday, President Obama ordered flags at federal buildings to be flown at half-staff. He postponed his trip to a General Electric facility in New York scheduled for Tuesday.
He also called on the country to join him Monday at 11 a.m. Eastern time in observing a moment of silence for the shooting victims.
"It will be a time for us to come together as a nation in prayer or reflection, keeping the victims and their families closely at heart," the president said in a statement.