Spirit of unity after Arizona slayings may be fleeting
Silence fell in Washington on Monday as President Obama, members of Congress and hundreds of officials bowed their heads in the wake of Arizona’s mass shooting and promised a new spirit of comity that harkened back to the days after the terrorist attacks of 2001.
“Harsh words are offered from both sides,” said Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas). “I hope this tragedy will play a role in diminishing some of the strident statements that we have heard.”
A call for civility came from space, where the brother-in-law of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona Democrat who was shot in the head in an apparent assassination attempt, was in orbit aboard the International Space Station.
“We’re better than this,” astronaut Scott Kelly radioed to NASA on the ground. “We must do better.”
But amid the calls for temperance, there were already suggestions that the peace would not hold.
Away from Capitol Hill, debate raged over whether a vitriolic political atmosphere played a role in the Tucson rampage.
Liberals decried the use of violent imagery in political speech, citing examples like former Alaska governor and Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s call last year to “never retreat, instead RELOAD.”
On the right, many argued that conservatism itself was, effectively, another victim of the shooting. Radio host Rush Limbaugh, a leading conservative voice, dismissed criticism of the right as “pure politics disguised as compassion and concern.”
As the rancorous debate continued, Jared Lee Loughner, 22, appeared Monday at a federal courthouse in downtown Phoenix, where he was charged with five federal felonies. The charges included an attempted assassination of Giffords and the murder of Arizona’s chief federal judge, John M. Roll, 63, who had served on the federal bench since 1991.
Separate state charges are expected. Six people were killed in the attack Saturday in Tucson, including a 9-year-old girl. At least 14 were wounded.
The court hearing lasted less than 20 minutes. Loughner was shackled at his wrists and ankles, clad in a tan prison jumpsuit and accompanied by his attorney, Judy Clarke, who has represented a slew of notorious defendants, including Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and “Unabomber” Theodore Kaczynski.
Loughner, whose head was shaved, appeared nervous at times but was polite and direct in answering the judge’s questions.
Magistrate Judge Lawrence O. Anderson declared Loughner a “danger to the community” and ordered him held without bail. Authorities also released a booking photograph of Loughner that showed him smiling.
In Phoenix, Arizona’s Legislature, its docket brimming with pressing issues of job creation, border security and a massive budget gap, started its session as scheduled. But Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, said she had scrapped her draft of the traditional State of the State speech.
Instead, speaking to a room of grim faces and pursed lips, she offered a brief depiction of Giffords’ Congress on Your Corner event on a sunny morning in the parking lot of a shopping center. Brewer called it “a picture of what our country is all about.”
The governor called the shooting not just an attack on individuals but “an assault on our constitutional republic, on our democracy.”
Giffords’ staff had briefly considered closing her Tucson field office after the shooting but decided that she would have wanted them to open as scheduled — so they did, at 8 a.m., while a neighbor played the national anthem on a trumpet out front.
Staff members and volunteers tried to press on with some of the office’s more mundane duties, such as trying to push through an Iraq war veteran’s disability claim.
Dave Locke, 50, of Tucson dropped by to write a message to Giffords: “We are praying for you.”
“Gabby was always one that would stand out and fight for you, regardless of what side of the fence you were on,” he said. “I had to come here. … This is just a horrific time in our nation, where we all need to pull together and stop the violence, stop the hatred, stop the bickering.”
Giffords was interested in ridding American politics of some of its toxicity. She had e-mailed a Republican friend the night before she was shot. During her reelection campaign her Republican opponent had invited his supporters to “get on target for victory” by firing an automatic rifle; Giffords’ note solicited ideas for toning down the partisan rhetoric.
There were plenty of suggestions Monday for efforts at renewed civility.
A bipartisan prayer service, for instance, was planned for this week in the Capitol. News commentators Keith Olbermann and Glenn Beck agreed, for once, calling on Americans to stand up against those who threaten violence.
Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes — while rejecting any suggestion that his cable news network might have played a role in inflaming tensions — said Monday that he had urged his staff members to chose their words carefully.
“I told all of our guys, shut up, tone it down, make your argument intellectually,” Ailes told hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons in a conversation published on Simmons’ website, Global Grind. “You don’t have to do it with bombast. I hope the other side does that.”
The first test of the new tone in Washington will probably be the vote to repeal the healthcare overhaul law — an issue that has sparked more political rancor than any other recently.
New House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio postponed the vote and other legislative business after the shooting. But the issue will be back soon, and some Democrats had already zeroed in on the name of that bill — the Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act, which they suggested ran contrary to any renewed sense of community on Capitol Hill.
The passage of the original bill last year led to an uptick in threats against members of Congress; Giffords’ office was among those targeted.
Some officials in Washington were skeptical that the heated rhetoric would be turned down for long.
Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) said the rhetoric might calm down “for a few weeks.” The only way political discourse will become more civil, he said, is “if people are willing to call out and, if necessary, disown folks on their own side.”
“Politicians want to harness the energy of their most passionate partisans,” he said. “All too often the public rewards stalwarts on hot-button issues rather than folks who want to make government work in a reasonable way.”
Lawrence Jacobs, who teaches American politics at the University of Minnesota, said, “It’s like we’re caught in a cul-de-sac of polarization.”
A key political question is whether Obama, whose response to the shootings has so far been measured, will tackle the issue of the nation’s tense political climate. The White House said Monday that the president would travel to Tucson on Wednesday to speak at a memorial service for the shooting victims. The University of Arizona said the 6 p.m. service would be open to the public.
After the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City, President Clinton called for Americans to speak out against “purveyors of hatred and division, the promoters of paranoia.”
That prompted an angry response from conservative figures, such as Limbaugh, who said liberals “intend to use this tragedy for their own gain” — a sentiment he and other conservatives are echoing now.
In an online post, Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips said Clinton’s denouncement of hate speech was effective — “backing conservatives off and possibly helping to ensure a second Clinton term.”
“The hard left is going to try and silence the Tea Party movement by blaming us for this,” he wrote.
“Political civility is long since dead.”
Gold and Hennessy reported from Washington and Santa Cruz reported from Phoenix. Times staff writers Scott Gold, Rong-Gong Lin II, Seema Mehta, Michael A. Memoli, Ashley Powers, Sam Quinones, Richard A. Serrano and Richard Simon contributed to this report.
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