Giffords’ Shooting is a Tragedy For American Democracy

(1/9/10) The shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ-8) is a national tragedy. My heart goes out to the victims and their families. For them, its motivation is irrelevant. But this shooting is also a tragedy for American democracy.  The senseless act of violence on Saturday, January 8, 2011 will make it harder for average Americans to connect with their member of Congress, and make Congress more insular than it already is.

Shortly after Saturday’s shooting, newly sworn-in House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH-8) made the following statement: “I am horrified by the senseless attack on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and members of her staff,” Boehner said. “An attack on one who serves is an attack on all who serve.  Acts and threats of violence against public officials have no place in our society. Our prayers are with Congresswoman Giffords, her staff, all who were injured, and their families. This is a sad day for our country.”

On Sunday morning (1/9/11) Boehner added the following statement: “normal House business this week is postponed to focus on any necessary actions in the shooting aftermath.”  But that this “inhuman act can’t be allowed to deter representatives from serving their constituents.” 

Not surprisingly, this attack has revived debate over the safety of Congressional members, not to mention the debate over gun control. Congressional protection has been on the front burner of Congress since last spring’s controversial town hall meetings on health care reform. On March 25, 2010, the glass front door to Congresswoman Giffords’ Tucson, Arizona district office was shattered in what her press secretary called “an act of political vandalism.”  The vandalism was allegedly incited by former 1990’s Alabama militia leader, Mike Vanderboegh who encouraged readers of his blog to commit acts of violence against lawmakers. His blog urged the following: “if you wish to send a message that Pelosi and her party cannot fail to hear, break their windows. Break them NOW.  Break them and run to break again. Break them under cover of night.  Break them in broad daylight. Break them and await arrest in willful, principled civil disobedience. Break them with rocks. Break them with slingshots. Break them with baseball bats. But BREAK THEM.”

It is clear to many that Vanderboergh went too far by advocating violence. The real question is whether Vanderboegh’s violent rhetoric motivated Jared Lee Loughner to shoot 19 innocent people and kill at least 6, including a 9 year old girl and a federal judge.

According to Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center which tracks violent extremists, Loughner’s postings describe no coherent political ideology.  It is believed that Loughner posted a series of YouTube videos prior to his rampage stating the following “The government is implying mind control and brainwash on the people by controlling grammar…. No! I won’t pay debt with a currency that’s not backed by gold and silver. No, I won’t trust in God.” Loughner may be nuts, but he was clearly influenced by anti-government rhetoric.

Members of Congress routinely hold town hall meetings and public gatherings every day while they are at home in their districts. Police are rarely if ever informed that these events are even occurring. Unless members hold a leadership position in Congress, they typically do not receive police protection. The cost of protecting all 435 members of Congress and thousands of staffers, not to mention volunteers and the general public during events like these would be tremendous. Now consider the astronomical cost for protecting other public officials such as agency heads, state lawmakers, judges, candidates, local officials and all of their staff, and you begin to see that what is truly at stake; American democracy itself.

Congressman Jeff Flake (R-AZ-6) stated at a press conference that Americans all “long for more civility everywhere, but I wouldn’t want to ascribe what happened today to [political rhetoric]. Usually when we speak out on something like that, we are proven wrong.” Congressional rising star Giffords is a pro-choice, social liberal, fiscal conservative, Blue Dog moderate Democrat who opposes earmarks and gun control. Conservative Republican Flake said, “he has disagreed with Giffords on many issues, but that they were always friendly.”  The risks of public life however, are quickly changing the security equation for public officials at all levels. “I wouldn’t want to reveal how security measures have changed,” said Flake. “You never want that out there. But certainly, I’ll be more careful” ,,8599,2041427,00.html.

If Giffords’ shooting means open season on members of Congress and their staff, who on earth will want to serve the public?  How could we blame them for not rising to the occasion?  Giffords’ shooting is a tragedy for American democracy.


On January 12, 2011, President Barack Obama spoke at the Arizona shooting memorial service.  A full transcript of his speech is posted at  I would encourage you to be a discriminating consumer of Presidential rhetoric.  Compare Obama’s speech to speeches from other American presidents throughout history.  I challenge you to find something in this speech that is bold and durable — some phrase that will last the ages — or for that matter, something that can be acted upon.

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