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Gabrielle Giffords Shot Down While Practicing Democracy

This Week with Christiane Amanpour, normally a Washington chat show, this weekend flew to Tucson, Arizona to film the above segment.  We expected nothing less of Amanpour, one of the top journalists in the world (and long a WVFC heroine). When a member of Congress is gunned down in a supermarket parking lot, along with several others, and the casualties include a federal judge and a nine-year-old girl, where else does a top journo want to be?  She flew in for Tragedy in Tucson, to try to understand the events in the context of Arizona’s volatile politics.

At this writing, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is in critical condition after being shot in the head. Gifford, who just turned 40, is the first serving Congressmember to be shot since 1978 (when Rep. Leo Ryan fell at Jonestown), and the first woman to be so victimized. “A sad milestone,”  Atlantic editor Matthew Cooper called it: “The shooting of Giffords–a mother (her husband had children by a previous marriage), a young woman of 40, the wife of an astronaut and the in-law of another who is currently in space–is horrible by any measure. It is the first time a female elected federal officeholder has been shot. It’s a reminder that female politicians are no more protected than female cops or firefighters, soldiers or corrections officers. And yet the first time we hear about a mother killed in the line of duty or a female POW, it curdles the stomach, not because of paternalism but because it marks a new barrier of decency that’s been broken.” Some might argue that that our stomachs should  “curdle” when any public servant is victimized, but we can’t pretend not to feel this one when she’s one of us.

Before she involuntarily broke this barrier, Giffords had already broken plenty of others. She’s the first female Jewish member of Congress, and the only member currently married to an active-duty military officer. Her husband, Commander Mark Kelly, is an astronaut. And when writer Rebecca Traister toured the nation asking women who would be the next possible woman President, one unfamiliar name kept being repeated: Gabrielle Giffords. A former Republican hailed by Business Week as “a centrist who defies political labels,” Giffords squeaked by in the 2010 midterms by emphasizing border security, downplaying gun control, and meeting one-on-one with her constituents as often as she could — even though her race was included in the infamous “20 targets” list circulated by the Tea Party in the spring, with a gun-sighting crosshairs placed over her name.

“Gabby Giffords is not your standard anything. She’s a moderate who supported Obama’s health care bill, his stimulus package, the 2008 TARP measure to rescue the banks and other institutions, and a liberal energy bill. More controversially, she is strongly pro-choice and supports stem-cell research, but she also defends her ownership of guns and her support for gun rights,” writes Luisita Torregrosa at Politics Daily. And while Giffords has outraged conservative constituents by voting for healthcare reform,  her more liberal supporters shouted when she supported the renewal of the Bush tax cuts, after which a poster on Daily Kos declared her “dead to me.” That post, like the Palin crosshairs ad, has been deleted since the shooting, as if they could be erased from our minds.

That ad perhaps didn’t contend with the sometimes-toxic atmosphere in Arizona — a mix that’s been growing more and more foul, according to Terry Greene Sterling at The Daily Beast. Sterling  spoke to a Giffords friend named W. Mark Clark, who told her that “Although Giffords proudly owns a gun and publicly hooted at being in the Palin crosshairs… she was secretly deeply troubled by death threats she began receiving during the 2010 campaign against businessman Jesse Kelly, who was supported by immigration hardliners Arizona Sen. Russell Pearce, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and former congressman Tom Tancredo.” In his expression of condolence, that opponent declares himself bewildered that anyone is shocked that at one of his fundraising events, he gave supporters a chance to shoot a round from an M-16. (Nonetheless — despite the fact that the shooter, rejected by the Army and his classmates, bought the murder weapon legally at a Sportsman’s Warehouse — Politico declared slim any chance of gun-control measures arising from this shooting.)

In yesterday’s press conference after the shooting, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik said that “The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous…And unfortunately, Arizona I think has become the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.” While the shooter, of whom his department has already been aware, is apparently schizophrenic with a long history of disturbance before he started posting videos about the gold standard, Dupnik said that he was perfect proof why it doesn’t matter if “most” people know those gun sights are theoretical.  “When you look at unbalanced people, [you can see] how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government,” he said.

Blogger Sady Doyle points out that one doesn’t have to be deranged to take all the rhetoric about “lock and load” and “Second Amendment remedies” literally. She adds that it’s too easy not to call out those fomenting it.  “When there’s been a movement centered around gun imagery and pro-gun statements and virulently oppressive stances toward the marginalized, and then, SURPRISE, a bunch of people get murdered by a gun, and people are still allowed to talk about how the people who the guns are getting pointed at are “playing the victim” because, gosh, the other side isn’t all that nice either, well…”

While all of us pray that Giffords gets to return to Washington, the conversation sparked by these events has to go on.  This has to be the moment when using warlike imagery is neither macho, nor humorous, nor what-everyone-does. We look forward to Giffords leading the charge, since we’ve long been aching for her “moderate voice in extreme times.”

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