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Arizona shooting brings political tensions to a boiling point

Though the shooting in Arizona has been condemned as a tragedy across the political spectrum, it has also injected new venom into the relationship between Democrats and the Tea Party movement.


After the shooting rampage that left a Congresswoman from Arizona fighting for her life and six bystanders dead, US officials and pundits from both sides of the political aisle forcefully denounced a shocking act of violence.

The tragedy brought about a rare demonstration of bipartisan unity: President Barack Obama’s Republican adversaries delayed a tensely awaited vote on repealing his sweeping healthcare overhaul as a show of support for injured Democrat Gabrielle Giffords.

But beyond the symbolic gesture, shared grief, and calls for calm, political tension in the US appeared to be at a boiling point. In stirring a fierce debate over US political rhetoric and its potentially dangerous consequences, the shooting has injected new loathing and distrust into the already highly charged relationship between Democrats and the right-wing Tea Party movement.

Democrats put Palin in the hot seat

While no evidence has been found linking alleged gunman Jared Loughner – who is also believed to be mentally disturbed – to any political party, authorities suspect he is the author of radical anti-government messages on the Internet. Moreover, Democrats have emphasised that Gabrielle Giffords, the representative who was injured, had been targeted with crosshairs on a campaign map published by Tea Party darling Sarah Palin ahead of November’s midterm elections. Giffords herself had told the press she was disturbed by Palin’s map, saying last March – in an eerie bit of foreshadowing – that “[people] have got to realise there’s consequences to that”.

Palin, who also publically urged Republicans not to retreat but to “reload” after Democrats passed Obama’s healthcare overhaul last year, posted a brief message of condolences on her Facebook page after the shooting. But that has not quelled angry accusations from parts of the left that by stoking right-wing anger and using war-like imagery, Palin bore some responsibility in the matter. Chris Carney, a former representative from Pennsylvania, called on the former governor and vice presidential candidate from Alaska to admit “that she was wrong” in displaying the map. Prominent left-wing TV commentator Keith Olbermann said Palin should apologise or be “repudiated” by the public.

Other Democratic voices have identified a larger problem, with The New York Times columnist Paul Krugman noting that “eliminationist” language (“jokes about shooting government officials”) had become all too common among Republicans. Meanwhile, Democratic Congressman Bob Brady on Monday announced plans for legislation to curb threatening language against lawmakers.

Many see the weekend’s tragedy as an inevitable result of specific changes in the US political climate – most notably the rise of the Tea Party since Obama took office in 2009. Ari Berman, a political correspondent for left-wing magazine The Nation, pointed to other recent instances of the right wing using extreme references: Tea Party members holding signs equating Obama with Hitler; Republican Senate candidate Sharon Angle mentioning “second amendment remedies” (a reference to the right to bear arms) as a possible response to an overstepping federal government; and the use of gunshots in political campaign ads.

“If all this violence is in the rhetoric, it’s not that surprising when there’s an actual incident”, Berman told “I don’t believe the Tea Party is [solely] responsible for this, but I do think they are more responsible than anyone else”. That sentiment was echoed in an editorial in online magazine Slate. “Extremist shouters didn't program Loughner, in some mechanistic way, to shoot Gabrielle Giffords”, political journalist Jacob Weisberg wrote. “But the Tea Party movement did make it appreciably more likely that a disturbed person like Loughner would react…”

‘Nothing to do with the Tea Party’

The Tea Party begs to differ. Trent Humphries, the head of the movement’s branch in Tucson, where the shooting occurred, told “what happened on Saturday has nothing to do with the Tea Party” and said suggestions by the left that the Tea Party somehow had blood on its hands amounted to “slander”. He noted that Tea Party and Republican leaders across the country had condemned the shooting and expressed solidarity with the victims’ families.

“This is just another case of the left using its bully pulpit to silence the people”, Humphries said.

While the Tea Party organiser acknowledged that there is sometimes “hyperbole and meanness” in US politics, he categorically rejected allegations that violent speech is typical of conservatives. Humphries offered the example of a 2008 presidential campaign rally at which Obama himself said of his opponents: “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun”. He also said that such rhetoric had been part of US politics long before the Tea Party came onto the scene.

Others have made the same argument. On Sunday, Slate’s Jack Shafer wrote, in an indignant column: “For as long as I've been alive, crosshairs and bulls-eyes have been an accepted part of the graphical lexicon when it comes to political debates”.

Amid the heated back-and-forth, there has been one figure who has steered clear of the controversy and now may have picked up some unlikely – and surely temporary – admirers. “I’ve been very proud of my president for the way he has responded to the tragedy without blaming anyone”, said Tea Party activist Humphries. “He has been right and we should follow his example”.

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