Giffords Shootings: Poisonous Fruit of Arizona's Vicious Politics

Giffords Shootings: Poisonous Fruit of Arizona's Vicious Politics

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TUCSON, Ariz.—Hundreds gathered Saturday night at a candlelight vigil at the Tucson University Medical Center, were U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and at least 10 other people were being treated for gunshot wounds in a savage attack that left six dead and the nation sickened and stunned.

The marchers held signs reading “Gabrielle we are with you,” “Tucson, we love you,” and “Peace will prevail.” Delayla Herrera was among the Tucson residents who joined in prayer for the dead and wounded and their families, even though she didn’t know any of them personally.

“It’s painful because I have a daughter and a son, and this is something I wouldn’t want to happen to them,” Herrera said. “There was an innocent child that died just for being there,” she added, referring to 9-year-old Christina Taylor-Green, who had gone with a neighbor to meet Giffords and was killed in the attack. Christina, recently elected to her school’s student council, was born on Sept. 11, 2001.

Giffords, 40, a three-term moderate Democrat from Tucson, was shot point-blank in the head Saturday morning when at least one assailant opened fire outside a Safeway where the congresswoman was meeting with constituents. Doctors said the bullet went through Giffords’s brain, leaving her in critical condition, but they expressed optimism about her chances of survival.

In addition to Christina, the dead included John Roll, the chief federal judge for the state of Arizona, and Gabe Zimmerman, a former social worker who served as Giffords' director of community outreach. Also killed were 76-year-old Dorthy Murray, 76-year-old Dorwin Stoddard, and 79-year-old Phyllis Scheck, investigators said.

A shaken President Barack Obama called the shooting an "unspeakable tragedy," adding: “Such a senseless and terrible act of violence has no place in a free society."

"I am sickened by the horrific attack in Tucson today and saddened by this senseless violence,"  Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, another Democrat from the Tucson area, said in a statement issued to the press. "This is a tragedy for Arizona, our nation, and our democracy. Gabrielle never let fear or intimidation prevent her from serving the people of Arizona. My thoughts and prayers are with Congresswoman Giffords, her husband Mark, her staff, all those who were injured, and their families."

Giffords, like Grijalva, narrowly won re-election in November against a Tea Party candidate furious over the passage of Obama’s health care law and Democrats' opposition to Arizona's anti-immigrant laws. According to the Associated Press, during the campaign, her opponent, Jesse Kelly, held fundraisers "where he urged supporters to help remove Giffords from office by joining him to shoot a fully loaded M-16 rifle." Kelly is a former Marine who served in Iraq and was pictured on his website in military gear holding his automatic weapon and promoting the event.

Fury over Giffords’s position occasionally turned violent, with her Tucson office vandalized and someone showing up at a recent gathering with a weapon Law enforcement officials said members of Congress reported 42 cases of threats or violence in the first three months of 2010, nearly three times the 15 cases reported during the same period a year earlier. Nearly all dealt with the health care bill, the Associated Press reported.

Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik blamed the shooting on the poisonous political rhetoric that has consumed the country, much of it centered in Arizona and fanned by a series of hard-line anti-immigration bills by lawmakers in the state, including SB 1070 and a new proposal to deny citizenship to the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants.

"When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government. The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous," Dupnik said. "And unfortunately, Arizona, I think, has become the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry."

Giffords expressed similar concerns. In an interview after her office was vandalized in March, she referred to the animosity of conservatives, including Sarah Palin's decision to list her seat as one of the top "targets" in the midterm elections.

"For example, we're on Sarah Palin's targeted list, but the thing is, that the way that she has it depicted has the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district. When people do that, they have to realize that there are consequences to that action," Giffords said in the interview with MSNBC.

In the hours after the shooting, Palin issued a statement in which she expressed her "sincere condolences" to the family of Giffords and the other victims.”

Republican governor Jan Brewer, who signed SB 1070 into law last year and rode it to victory on Election Night, said: "My thoughts and prayers are with Congresswoman Giffords and her family, the Congresswoman's staff and their families, as well as the other victims of this senseless and cruel violence."

But those words seemed empty to Isabel Garcia, director of Derechos Humanos, a human rights coalition in Tucson. She said the dead and wounded were victims of the militarization of the border created by federal policies and the negative rhetoric that has accompanied it for decades.

Garcia echoed Dupnik’s comments, blaming the mass media for distributing “misinformation by hate groups creating fear in the community and eventually leading to more anti Mexican rhetoric and anti-human rhetoric.”

“It’s not enough to just grieve together,” Garcia said. “Their deaths cannot be in vain. This should wake us up to what our real responsibilities are, which is to care for one another regardless of color and class, sexuality and nationality.”

“I don’t agree that we should take a political advantage out of what has happened,” said Daniel Ortega, a local civil rights attorney who attended a vigil for the victims in Phoenix. “But this does send the message that people who try to serve the community in political positions are risking much more than we imagine.”

Both Democratic and Republican Latinos expressed their sorrow. “[Giffords] was a good friend and represented the Tucson district very well,” said Alberto Gutier, a Republican lobbyist who has worked with her in the past.

“We demand justice against the person responsible,” said Francisco Lara Garcia, a political science student in the University of Tucson, “but also for the tone of the political speech in the country to calm down. There is a political climate in the U.S. that promotes these attitudes and attacks against people that are simply fulfilling their role as Congress people.”

Police said the shooter, identified as 22-year-old Jared Loughner, was in custody. His motivation was not immediately known, but Dupnik described him as mentally unstable and possibly acting with an accomplice, and police were searching for a second man, said to be in his 50s.