Posted Saturday, Jan. 8, 2011, at 1:57 PM
The Associated Press is reporting that Gabrielle Giffords, a third-term representative from Arizona, was one of several people shot at a "Congress on your corner" public event in Tucson. Members of her staff were also shot. As I wrote this, the AP updated its report to quote "congressional officials" saying that Giffords had been shot in the head.
This is a good time to let Tucson police and reporters do their jobs -- politics can wait for later. But it's worth remembering that Giffords was one of the members of Congress whose offices were vandalized after voting for health care reform in 2010.
UPDATE: NPR and local news are reporting that Giffords is dead. At the hospital, no one has confirmed this. So this is is either the first assassination of national American politician since Rep. Leon Ryan in 1979, or the first attempted assassination since John Hinckley shot Ronald Reagan.*
UPDATE II: Giffords is alive and in critical condition, and NPR has apologized for blowing the story.
Nobody wants to talk politics right now. But this was an assassination or an attempted assassination; it's inherently political. Last year, some Republican politicians used Second Amendment references (remember Sharron Angle and "second Amendment remedies" if Harry Reid didn't lose) and revolutionary talk to express how angry they were about the state of their country. They strongly and vehemently rejected the charge, from Democrats, that they were encouraging an atmosphere of violence -- especially in the week after the health care vote. When Giffords's opponent held a fundraiser and pitched it as "help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office, shoot a fully automatic M-16 with Jesse Kelly," Democrats saw the specter of violence, and Republicans saw political posturing.
If you are a Republican politician, and you allow yourself a callow thought today, you flash back to 1995 and the Oklahoma City bombing. It occurred four months after Republicans took over Congress, and Republicans thought they heard President Clinton turning the tragedy back onto them in his remarks at the memorial service.
To all my fellow Americans beyond this hall, I say, one thing we owe those who have sacrificed is the duty to purge ourselves of the dark forces which gave rise to this evil. They are forces that threaten our common peace, our freedom, our way of life.
Let us teach our children that the God of comfort is also the God of righteousness. Those who trouble their own house will inherit the wind. Justice will prevail.
Let us let our own children know that we will stand against the forces of fear. When there is talk of hatred, let us stand up and talk against it. When there is talk of violence, let us stand up and talk against it. In the face of death, let us honor life. As St. Paul admonished us, let us not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
In retrospect, Republicans pinpoint this as a moment when Clinton defined them -- the party that had just taken Congress -- as out of the mainstream. They thought it was unfair. And we know that it benefited Clinton politically. After the memorial, Dick Morris wrote a memo about the effects of the tragedy. "Permanent possible gain: sets up Extremist Issues vs. Republicans," wrote Morris. But it didn't play out like that because Morris said so; it played out because after a tragedy, it hurts to think about how lightly you took the possibility of that tragedy.
In 2010, on the 15th anniversary of the bombing, Clinton reprised some of this and irritated conservatives again.
We are again dealing with difficulties in a contentious, partisan time. We are more connected than ever before, more able to spread our ideas and beliefs, our anger and fears. As we exercise the right to advocate our views, and as we animate our supporters, we must all assume responsibility for our words and actions before they enter a vast echo chamber and reach those both serious and delirious, connected and unhinged.Civic virtue can include harsh criticism, protest, even civil disobedience. But not violence or its advocacy.
Like it or not, this is what our national conversation will now turn back to.
*I originally failed to note the attempted 1981 assassination of President Reagan.
Also in Slate, Jack Shafer is responding to the Giffords shooting and its media coverage.