Feb. 13, 2016 SIGN IN | REGISTER

‘An Attack on All Who Serve’

Violent Political Rhetoric Is the Inescapable Context of the Arizona Tragedy

Will Seberger/Roll Call
Well-wishers left flowers and candles near the district office of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords following the shootings in Tucson, Ariz.

Correction Appended

The stunning Tucson, Ariz., ambush during the most basic act of democracy a Congresswoman meeting with constituents back home has illuminated an ugly breakdown in American political discourse.

Former Sen. Bob Kerrey has been watching temperatures rise for years.

"Sarah Palin needs to apologize for putting gun sights on her website," Kerrey told Roll Call.

But then, he thought better of it.

"Wait a minute, I don't want to say that," the Nebraska Democrat said. "Those of us who are appalled by it, those of us who are angered by it, we need to stop it."

The target of Saturday's attack, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), was shot in the head and is in critical condition. Six are dead, including a federal judge and a child, and at least 14 more are wounded. While cause and effect may never be made clear in Arizona's horror, the political context of the bloodshed is a level of heightened partisanship and anti-government rhetoric that in recent years has devolved from harsh to openly violent, if only in metaphor. Palin's website famously featured a "hit list" of Democrats to be defeated in 2010, including Giffords, and those on the list were highlighted with rifle-scope cross hairs. "Don't retreat," Palin urged visitors to the site, "instead RELOAD."

The 2008 presidential campaign featured an undercurrent of violence that alarmed the Secret Service. After Barack Obama won the presidency, some people attended his events carrying guns. The town hall meetings lawmakers held in 2009 to discuss health care often flared into angry protests, prompting members to speak about fears of violence and vandalism.

The examples of inflammatory discourse abound, from gas lines being cut at the home of then-Rep. Tom Perriello's (D-Va.) brother when his address was posted on the Internet, to Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) asking her supporters to get "armed and dangerous." Republican Sharron Angle referred to "Second Amendment remedies" as she campaigned to unseat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) in Nevada.

"The more people do that, they've got to realize there's consequences to that action," Giffords herself had said about the Palin "hit list."

Giffords' 2010 rival held an event offering supporters a chance to shoot an M16 and "help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office."

Perriello told Roll Call he has less of a problem with Palin's target list (he was on it) than with the subtle "dehumanization" of political enemies that can spark violence. "To a crazed mind or a mind that might be prone to violence," name-calling can feed vitriol more than any campaign flier using cross hairs, he said.

"The [campaign] language has been very strong, and, it seems to me, inflammatory," former Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach told Roll Call on Sunday.

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