Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is battling for her life todayafter a man shot her in the head and killed six people in a rampage that fueled debate about extreme political rhetoric in America.
The 40-year-old Democratic lawmaker was in critical condition after yesterday’s shooting at a public event in Tucson, Arizona, but doctors were cautiously optimistic she would survive. A single bullet passed through her head.
The suspect was in federal custody as investigators sought a motive and looked for a possible accomplice.
The violence shocked politicians in Washington, where Congress postponed a vote on healthcare reform later this week. After an acrimonious campaign for congressional elections last November, some Democrats were quick to say a shrill climate of political vitriol might have played a role.
“We are in a dark place in this country right now and the atmospheric condition is toxic,” Democratic Representative Emanuel Cleaver told NBC’s “Meet the Press” program.
But Jon Kyl, a Republican senator from Arizona, cautioned against a “rush to speculate.”
“We really don’t know what motivated this young person, except to know he was very mentally unstable,” Kyl said on the “Face the Nation” show on CBS.
The suspect, identified as Jared Lee Loughner, 22, opened fire with a semi-automatic pistol at point-blank range outside a supermarket, killing six people including federal judge John Roll and a 9-year-old girl. Twelve people were wounded.
Arizona police released a photo of another man sought for questioning who was seen at the shopping center. He is white and thought to be 40 to 50 years old.
Gun violence is common in the United States but political shootings are rare.
Police seeking a motive for the rampage were looking at a rambling Internet manifesto left by Loughner or someone writing under that name. There was no coherent theme to the writing, which accused the government of mind control and demanded a new currency.
The U.S. Army confirmed the suspect attempted to enlist in December 2008 but was rejected for unspecified reasons.
House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner ordered flags at the U.S. Capitol in Washington lowered to half staff in memory of the victims. He said the incident was a reminder that public service comes with a risk.
“This inhuman act should not and will not deter us from our calling to represent our constituents and fulfill our oaths of office. No act, no matter how heinous, must be allowed to stop us from our duty,” Boehner said.
In Tucson, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik said the suspect “has kind of a troubled past and we’re not convinced that he acted alone.”
Dupnik said he believed Giffords was the intended target of the shooting. The suspect had made threats to kill in the past but not against the congresswoman, he said.
Democratic Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz told NBC that Giffords’ staff told her the congresswoman woke up on Saturday night and apparently responded to her husband’s voice before being sedated again.
“Everybody has a guarded optimism about her surviving,” Tucson Mayor Bob Walkup told Reuters on Sunday morning.
Lawmakers in Washington put off their agenda for this week, including a vote on the repeal of President Barack Obama’s contentious healthcare overhaul.
The new Congress convened last week after the November 2 elections in which the Republican Party won control of the House and reduced the Democratic majority in the Senate.
The U.S. Capitol Police cautioned members of Congress “to take reasonable and prudent precautions.” Still, most lawmakers are largely unguarded outside the Capitol, except the leaders of the House and Senate, who have security details.
“We can be shot down in our district but we can also be shot walking over to the Capitol,” Democratic Representative Maxine Waters told the Washington news outlet Politico. “We’re vulnerable and there’s no real way to protect us.”
Giffords warned previously the heated rhetoric had prompted violent threats against her and vandalism at her office.
In an interview last year with MSNBC, Giffords cited a map of electoral targets put out by Sarah Palin, a Republican former Alaska governor and prominent conservative, that had each marked by the crosshairs of a rifle sight.
After the shooting, the graphic was removed from Palin’s website and she offered condolences on a posting on Facebook.
“We all pray for the victims and their families, and for peace and justice,” Palin said.
In several videos posted on the Internet site YouTube, a person who posted under the name Jared Lee Loughner criticizes the government and religion. It was not known if he was the same person as the suspect.
“The government is implying mind control and brainwash on the people by controlling grammar,” the man says. “No! I won’t pay debt with a currency that’s not backed by gold and silver! No! I won’t trust in God!”
In a biographical sketch on the site, the man writes that he attended Tucson-area schools and says his favorite books include Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” Karl Marx’s “Communist Manifesto” and Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” which is set in a mental asylum.
Giffords, married to NASA astronaut Navy Captain Mark Kelly, is seen as a rising star in the Democratic Party. She narrowly defeated a conservative opponent and was one of the few Democrats to survive the Republican sweep in swing districts in November’s elections.
Arizona has been at the center of a political firestorm in the past year, symbolizing a bitter partisan divide across much of America.
The spark was the border state’s move to crack down on illegal immigration last summer, a bill proposed by conservative lawmakers and signed by the state’s Republican governor, Jan Brewer.
Most Arizonans supported the crackdown but opponents and many in the state’s large Hispanic population felt it was unconstitutional and would lead to discrimination. Giffords said it would not secure the border or stop drug smuggling and gun running.