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.
“We are in a dark place in the country right now, and the atmospheric condition is toxic and much of it begins in Washington, D.C., and we export it across the country,” he said. “I think Members of Congress either need to turn down the volume — again, to try to exercise some high level of civility — or this darkness will never, ever be overcome with light.”
Republicans were quick to point out that mental illness may play a greater role in the shooting than political philosophy. But several said they agreed civility must take a more central role in political debate.
“We really don’t know what motivated this young person except to know he was very mentally unstable,” Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl said on “Face the Nation.”
The Arizona Republican added: “It’s probably giving him too much credit to ascribe a coherent political philosophy to him. We just have to acknowledge that there are mentally unstable people in this country. Who knows what motivates them to do what they do? Then they commit terrible crimes like this.”
“Of course we want civility instead of incivility, and of course we don’t want violence, but I think in all the talk about this we have to be very careful about inputting the motives or the actions of a deranged individual to any particular group of Americans who have their own political beliefs,” Alexander said on “State of the Union.”
He argued that Loughner was an extremist, citing a website attributed to the suspect that contained a video showing a burning American flag and a list of favorite books that included work by Karl Marx and Adolf Hitler.
“That’s not the profile of a typical tea party member, and that’s the inference that is being made,” Alexander said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “I think obviously we are much better off in our country if we peacefully assemble, treat each other with respect and condemn people who go over the line, particularly people who do it violently as this individual did yesterday.”
Rep. Jeff Flake agreed that people in the public eye need to watch what they say in the future.
“When we can work together between the parties on these issues, I think that’s what people want to see,” the Arizona Republican said on ABC’s This Week.”
Wasserman Schultz suggested that Democrats and Republicans should hold an event to discuss ways they can tone down the political debate and encourage more civility.
“It is a moment and it should be a moment for both parties in Congress to come together. ... We absolutely have to realize that we are all in this for the same reason: to make America a better place,” she said. “We should have an event where we spend some time together talking about how we can work better together, and then we can move forward together and try to avoid tragedies like this.”
John Stanton and Melanie Starkey contributed to this report.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.