By Sandhya Somashekhar
Sunday, January 9, 2011; 12:38 AM
No information had yet been released about the man implicated in the mass shooting that wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) before pundits and activists across the political spectrum identified the culprit: The sad state of political discourse in America.
Liberals were quick to blame the tea party movement and the sometimes-militant rhetoric employed by its standard-bearers. On Twitter, activists repeatedly referred to the remarks of Sharron Angle (R), the unsuccessful Senate candidate in Nevada, who last year advocated "second-amendment remedies" to some of the nation's problems. And they noted the map posted by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin (R), who depicted crosshairs over the states where she hoped to oust Democratic incumbents.
As details emerged about the alleged gunman and his erratic views, however, the tea party responded.
"If we ever needed an official political obituary to political civility in this country, we've seen it," said Judson Phillips, founder of Tea Party Nation. "The facts weren't even out there, Rep. Giffords had been carted away in a stretcher, we didn't even know her condition, but the war had already started. The folks on the hard left were already out there blaming the tea party."
Turns out the politics espoused by the alleged gunman, Jared Lee Loughner, 22, are difficult to pin down. A Jared Loughner lists on his YouTube channel Mein Kampf and The Communist Manifesto among his favorite books, but his views are difficult to decipher from his videos - and it is not clear if he is the same man implicated in the shooting.
That Giffords was targeted by a tea partier was an easy assumption to make considering her historical clashes with the movement. A moderate Democrat, she had been vilified by some conservatives for her opposition to her state's aggressive crackdown on illegal immigrants and for her support for the health-care overhaul.
When asked by The New York Post on Saturday if his daughter had any enemies, Giffords's father, Spencer Giffords responded, "Yeah...The whole tea party."
Trent Humphries was headed to the local Safeway for some milk when he was stopped by a police barricade. It wasn't until later that he would find out that a congresswoman with whom he had often clashed politically had been shot there, along with more than a dozen others. A neighbor was among the dead.
"We were sickened," recalled Humphries, an organizer with the Tucson Tea Party. "Obviously, we do not condone violence. We've had dozens and dozens of events and we've never had violence. Whoever did this, they're not grounded in political thought. I would be very surprised if it was someone who had ever come to our meetings."
After the suspected shooter's name was released, Humphries said he checked the 4,000-person Tucson Tea Party contact list and found no one by the name of Jared Loughner.
Across Arizona, conservative and tea party activists expressed shock and dismay at the events that unfolded in the grocery store parking lot in Tucson. Though little was known about the alleged shooter Saturday afternoon, questions inevitably arose about his politics.
Some Arizona tea party activists, like Humphries, said it was unfair to connect the politics of a large and mostly peaceful movement to the actions of a single criminal. The day's events led others to question the environment fostered by some of the more confrontational members of their movement.
"You have to be very careful what you say. We live in a very polarized environment here in the United States, and while I do believe in the second amendment, no one should be referring to second amendment solutions," said Patrick Beck, president of the Mohave County Tea Party in the northern part of the state.
"I've given many speeches to my group and at different events in my area, and in doing so I'm very conscious of who's listening," he said. "When I look out at the crowd, 99 percent of the people I see are just like me -- average every day Americans who want constitutional government, fiscal responsibility, things of that nature. Every once in a while, though, I see someone -- how should I put it? -- who is getting too excited, who seems a little farther on the fringe...I realized I had to tone down my comments a little bit, less yelling and screaming and more educational."
When asked about the Palin target map, Beck said: "I don't know. It's really easy in the context of what happened this morning to look back and say, I don't know if this was such a bright idea. At the same time, there are other politicians from the other side of the political spectrum who have said similar military-style sayings. Do I really believe they are intending harm on people? No."