The news spread quickly. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was fighting for her life after a deranged gunman went on a rampage in a scene that is becoming all too familiar in this age of mass shootings and homegrown terrorists. The shooting in Arizona left six people dead, including a federal judge and a nine-year-old girl.
The Virginia Tech shooting in 2007 sparked intense debate about gun violence, gun laws, the system of treating mental illness, and the media's coverage of these types of tragedies. Since the shootings by a Virginia Tech English major, hundreds of people have been injured or killed in similar events. The media has been blamed for inciting copy-cat incidents, played out by people with mental problems and a paranoid hatred of government policies.
Not long after the Arizona massacre, news stations were playing an interview with Giffords from last march urging Republicans, especially Tea Party members, and specifically Sarah Palin, to cool the rhetoric. Palin had posted on her Facebook page showing her congressional district in the crosshairs of a gun.
The gunman's motive is not yet known, but in Arizona's Pima County, Sheriff Clarence Dupnik suggested "all this vitriol" in recent politics might be connected to the shootings. "This may be free speech," he said at a news conference, "but it's not without consequences."
The debate has spread at a speed unprecedented even in the age of the Internet, with liberal bloggers and social media commentators blaming the attack on Palin and the violent imagery evoked by some Tea Party candidates and other conservatives during the recent midterm elections.
In a Facebook posting, Palin did not address the past language she has used but offered her condolences to the shooting victims. It was widely reported in blogs and in the media that Palin has taken down the crosshairs map from her web page.
The attack on Giffords comes after what has been a particularly ugly season in American politics, especially when it comes to last year's passage of the health care reform bill. Last March, the glass door of Giffords' Congressional office in Tucson was smashed in the middle of the night.
"Community leaders, figures in our community need to say 'look, we can’t stand for this'", she told Chuck Todd on MSNBC a few days later. "This is a situation where the rhetoric is firing people up and, you know, 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. And when people do that, they’ve got to realize there’s consequences to that action."
"But in fairness, campaign rhetoric and war rhetoric have been interchangeable for years," Todd said, and then asked, "And so, is there a line here? I understand that in the moment it may look bad, but do you really think that’s what she intended?"
Giffords' response: "You know, I can’t say, I’m not Sarah Palin. But I can say that in the years that some of my colleagues have served - 20, 30 years - they’ve never seen it like this."
Giffords brushed off Todd’s idiotic comments that campaign rhetoric has borrowed from war rhetoric over the years, noting that it’s much worse now than it ever has been.
Thomas Hollihan, a USC professor of political rhetoric, said people like the Arizona shooter "get affected by a kind of toxic political culture that makes them angry and paranoid that their government is being taken away." But he warned against coming to any conclusions. "People who commit crimes like this are often just unhinged," he said.
The information slowly coming out about the alleged shooter, 22-year-old high school dropout Jared L. Loughner, did not suggest he had any clear political motivation. Although he complained in online diatribes about terrorism and "mind control", what drove him to violence has not been established.
"We don't yet know what provoked this unspeakable act," President Obama said from the White House. "But we're going to get to the bottom of this."
While we still have no clear explanation of the shooter's motive, and we may never know (so far he's invoked his right to counsel), Saturday's shooting set off an eruption of anger, much of it by bloggers, but also on Web sites like Twitter and Facebook. If you spend any time online, the Tea Party seems to be the number one instigator, getting most of the blame, followed closely by Arizona's permissive gun laws and conservative media pundits such as Glenn Beck.
When asked by The New York Post if his daughter had any enemies, Giffords' father responded: "Yeah, the whole Tea Party."
In this age of the Internet, when figuring out who is responsible for the political rhetoric that set this tragedy into motion, it doesn't take long to see who the clear winner is. It's Sarah Palin.