Kristen and I were driving to our Tucson home from Phoenix Saturday morning when we heard the news on the radio. Our friend and Congressman Gabby Giffords and more than a dozen other people had been shot (CNN and NPR actually reported that she was dead) outside the Safeway store at Oracle and Ina. We were on our way home and would have driven right by that intersection a few minutes later. We would have certainly stopped to say hello to Gabby.
Instead we had to take a detour around the police roadblock and finish the trip to our house listening to this horrific event repeatedly described as "shocking" by every one on the radio. But I live in Arizona and I live in the United States. As devastated as I was by the news, I was no more shocked than one would be to learn that a person who drank a quart of scotch a day for years had developed liver disease or that a 4-pack-a-day smoker had contracted lung cancer. This was a devastating and sad but totally logical outcome of the toxic trends that have been at work in our country and my home state for years now.
Later in the day, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik hit it right on the head.
"Let me say one thing, because people tend to pooh-pooh this business about all the vitriol that we hear inflaming the American public by people who make a living off of doing that," the sheriff said during a press conference. "That may be free speech, but it's not without consequences."
Dupnik declared that "it's time that this country take a little introspective look at the crap that comes out on radio and TV. The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous, and unfortunately Arizona has become sort of the capital, We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry."
Dupnik did not say that any of the purveyors of hatred ever said specifically that someone should take a gun and shoot Gabby Giffords in the head. He also did not say that there is any way to guarantee that some nut won't take a gun and go out and shoot a bunch of people. He also made it clear that the hate-mongers on the airwaves were not doing anything illegal.
He just said that these actions "are not without consequences."
There is no denying that the use of demonization and promotion of hatred have become well choreographed, well funded, and very effective political strategies in our country in recent years and nowhere has that been more evident than in Arizona.
As a Democrat in a district that had gone Republican for two decades, Gabby Giffords has been in the crosshairs of the haters--literally and figuratively--for the last two years.
She was one of 20 Democrats targeted by Sarah Palin in her now-infamous website posting during the health care debate last year. In a post entitled "Don't Retreat, Instead--Reload!" Palin urged her followers to aggressively go after targeted Democrats and showed a map of the U.S. with simulated crosshairs of a gun scope showing the districts where the offending Congressmen lived. Since the murders, Palin has taken the posting down but Giffords expressed her alarm during a TV interview at the time in which she said "people have to realize that there are consequences of their actions. On the day of the final vote on health care reform, Giffords' Tucson office was attacked and the front door was smashed.
Shortly before that, a close friend of mine began working for Giffords in that office. She was excited about the job and looked forward to interacting with and helping Tucson residents who came to the Congressman seeking assistance.
Instead, she had to walk through throngs of demonstrators (some of them paid) who harassed Giffords and her staff on a daily basis. She told me that the phone lines were constantly jammed by "the regulars" who called regularly to rant about Giffords' liberal views in a constant stream of abusive and obscene invectives. One day, my friend was physically accosted by an angry and abusive man inside the office and Giffords' Outreach Director Gabe Zimmerman had to intervene to protect her. Gabe, a sweet and wonderful 30 year old man who was recently engaged, was one of those murdered in yesterday's attack.
A short time later, my friend quit her job. She told me she was unable to sleep at night and couldn't take the constant abuse any more.
During a "Congress at Your Corner" meeting at a different Safeway store more than a year ago, one of the attendees dropped a gun on the ground. After that incident, a caller later warned that if Giffords kept messing with his First Amendment rights then she would have to start dealing with "Second Amendment remedies"--a sentiment echoed by Tea Party Senate candidate Sharron Angle in Nevada a few months ago.
Gabby is a tough lady. But when I last talked with her before the election in November, she shook her head and told me she was both shaken and astonished by both the nastiness of the campaign against her and the huge amounts of money that were being funneled in from out of state to support her opponent, Tea Party phenom Jesse Kelly. Kelly is a 29-year old Montana native who flunked out of college during his freshman year and never was involved in politics until he ran against Gabby last year. Before running for Congress he worked in his dad's construction business.
His first campaign fundraising event last summer was headlined "Get on Target for Victory in November. Help Remove Gabrielle Giffords From Office. Shoot a Fully Automatic M-16 with Jesse Kelly."
Kelly's campaign was largely bankrolled by the Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity who funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars into Tucson to put attack ads against Giffords on the airwaves and the roadsides. A month before the election, thousands of blue and white signs appeared overnight up over most of the streets and highways in District 8. None of them even mentioned Kelly's name--they were pure attacks on Giffords. "Giffords bailed out Wall Street With Your Money" said one. Another said "Giffords Stole $500 Billion From Your Health Care." They popped up overnight in clusters like Burma Shave signs.
I have seen hundreds of political campaign signs over the years. I never saw one before that was purely negative and didn't even mention the name of the person being supported.
President Obama actually pushed the already bizarre Arizona political scene over the edge two years ago when he asked our governor, Janet Napolitano, to be his Director of Homeland Security. For years, Napolitano was the lone voice of reason in state government and her vetoes kept the Republican legislature in check. But after she left for Washington and was replaced by Republican Jan Brewer, all reason, sanity and human decency disappeared from Phoenix and the inmates took over the asylum completely.
Last year, as Arizona's real-estate based economy sank into depression and our state dropped to 49th in the nation in public education, Brewer and the Republican state legislature were completely focused on dealing with their version of the state's two great problems. The first was a law enabling and ordering state police to harass people who looked like they were Mexican and didn't belong here. It is called an "immigration law" but it has nothing to do with immigration which is a federal, not a state issue.
The second was a law that made sure that any resident could buy automatic weapons and carry them concealed without obtaining a permit. That eliminated the requirement that gun buyers receive any training and is one of the reasons why it was so easy and perfectly legal for the alleged shooter--a 22 year old with a documented history of criminal behavior and mental issues--to walk into the Sportsman's Warehouse here a month ago and buy a 19 mm semi-automatic Glock pistol along with several extended magazines and all the ammo a mass murderer could possibly need.
It also made it perfectly legal for that mass murderer to wander into a crowd of people in a shopping center with that Glock and magazines loaded with more than 60 bullets concealed until he walked up to his Congressman and shot her through the head. The act itself could obviously have happened anywhere but Tucson and Phoenix are the only major American cities where it could it have happened legally.
This has all happened with a national backdrop in which tens of millions of emails are manufactured, received, and forwarded every day in which the angriest among us are increasingly referred to as "patriots" and "real Americans" are urged to take back our country from our president and Democrats who are trying to destroy America and the values that real patriots hold dear.
The cable TV and radio airwaves are full of angry demonizing voices that lend credibility and critical mass to statements that in the past would have been viewed as over the line and shameful.
That is not a clear cut provocation to murder or violence but let's be honest. What is a true patriot supposed to do when he is constantly told by well-funded professional marketers and charismatic communicators that our socialist, alien president and his liberal accomplices in Congress are traitors who are destroying everything that has made America great?
For years, Fox News celebrity Bill O'Reilly ranted about and demonized Kansas abortion doctor George Tiller--calling him "Tiller the Baby Killer" on dozens of occasions and saying that Tiller had "blood on his hands". In June, 2009, Scott Roeder walked into Tiller's church and shot the doctor at point blank range. Reasonable people can and have disagreed about whether O'Reilly was responsible for the murder. But there can be little doubt that when a passionate or troubled person hears a doctor he is predisposed to hate referred to as a killer of babies repeatedly by a respected TV celebrity, it makes it much easier for that person to make the leap from disapproval to violent action.
The same can be said about those Orthodox rabbis who placed a death sentence on Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin 15 years ago and the thousands who held rallies (at which current prime minister Netanyahu actually spoke) where "death to Rabin" was chanted.
None of those people actually went up to the young and passionate Yigal Amir and told him to go to Tel Aviv and murder Rabin at a peace rally, but there can be little doubt that the tone of violence and demonization set by responsible and respected people played a role in Amir's decision to go from being a passionate student to a murderer.
As Gabby Giffords said last year and Sheriff Dupnik repeated after Gabby was gunned down, when people choose to exercise their legal right to spout hatred and demonization and target others as traitors, there are consequences.
Tucson is now awash in media personalities and government officials. Many of the political figures who endorsed the efforts to demonize Gabby two months ago are now singing her praises. The law enforcement people will spend thousands of hours and millions of dollars trying to figure out exactly what happened. They will learn nothing new. We all know what happened here. A troubled young man legally carrying a concealed assault weapon without a permit went on a rampage and murdered and wounded 20 innocent defenseless people.
More decent people will echo the comments about the dangers of living in a society where guns and hatespeech are put on a pedestal and others who have created those values will complain that those liberals are trying to blame good honest American values for the actions of a nut case acting on his own.
There will be a lot of heat and very little light.
None of it will make the murder rampage here in Tucson less horrific or devastating.
But please don't call it shocking.
Instead, look at the emails you have received and forwarded lately and decide if they have created a tone that makes our country and the world a better place.
I'm not a person who prays much, but please pray for our friend Gabby and our state and our country.
And remember what she and the sheriff had to say.
That when we make choices about what kind of behavior and speech is right and decent, those decisions are not without consequences.