Lawmakers on Sunday called for their colleagues to tone down the harsh partisan rhetoric in order to avoid unintended responses from the public.
Their comments came the day after Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and more than a dozen others were shot during an event for her constituents in Tucson. Giffords, 40, was shot in the head and is in critical condition. Six people were killed.
Authorities suspect the shooter at Saturday morning’s “Congress on Your Corner” event outside a Tucson Safeway was Jared Lee Loughner, 22, who is in custody. A second man who was wanted for questioning was located and cleared of wrongdoing Sunday afternoon, the Arizona Daily Star reported. Richard Kastigar, the operations bureau chief of the Pima County Sheriff’s Office, told the newspaper that the man was a cab driver who drove Loughner to the Safeway.
While it has not been determined whether the shooting was politically motivated, several lawmakers said the tragedy was a wake-up call about heated partisanship in Congress and around the country.
“We live in a world of violent images and violent words, but those of us in public life and the journalists who cover us should be thoughtful in response to this and try to bring down the rhetoric, which I’m afraid has become pervasive in our discussion of political issues,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “The phrase ‘don’t retreat ... reload,’ putting crosshairs on Congressional districts as targets, these sorts of things, I think, invite the kind of toxic rhetoric that can lead unstable people to believe this is an acceptable response.”
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who was the GOP vice presidential candidate in 2008, has used that phrase, and the imagery refers to Palin’s “hit list” of Members whom she wanted defeated in 2010. Durbin was careful to note that he was not directly tying them to Giffords’ shooting, but he said there is an “obligation” for public officials to speak up when rhetoric goes too far.
During the health care debate last March, several lawmakers, including Giffords, raised concern about the rhetoric of tea party groups around the country.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the responsibility for thoughtful discourse extends beyond elected officials.
“I agree it’s our responsibility to make sure we set the right example and set the tone of civility, but the shock jocks and the political movement leaders out there on both sides of the aisle need to have some pause as well,” she said.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) also discussed the pervasiveness of inflammatory language. “Far too many broadcasts now and so many outlets have the intent of inciting, and inciting people to opposition, to anger, to thinking the other side is less than moral,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “And I think that is a context in which somebody who is mentally unbalanced can somehow feel justified in taking this kind of action.”
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) said on “Meet the Press” that much of the heated dialogue starts during campaigns and has a tendency to spill over in the Capitol.