By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 9, 2011; 4:51 PM
Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) was doing what every member of Congress does when she went to the Safeway store in Tucson on Saturday. She was meeting her constituents face to face, listening to their requests, their complaints, their grievances. It is the essence of a free society, an act integral to the operations of the people's House - and a reminder of the vulnerability of elected officials all across the country.
Giffords now lies in a hospital in critical condition. Six people were killed in the attack, including a federal judge and a child; 14 were injured. A great debate has begun to unfold about the conduct of politics in a climate of hatred and fear. No one can know at this point what the long-term effects of the tragic shootings will be, if any. At a minimum, they offer a reminder that elected officials deserve better than the routine demonization that has become so commonplace in politics today.
There is no conclusive connection between the motives of the alleged Tucson shooter, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner, and the inflamed political discourse that has become the norm in recent years. He may prove to be a deranged loner and nothing more. Still, the terrible events have brought a renewed and healthy focus on the culture of politics in this country. In the short term at least, everyone has pulled back to pause and reflect.
The presidential motorcade - complete with flashing lights, armored limousines, heavily armed war wagons and Secret Service agents at the ready - is an iconic image of modern politics in the United States. That is the exception. The norm is what was taking place in Tucson on Saturday: a lone politician, without security, accompanied by a few members of her staff, making herself available to the public - and paying a huge price.
The practical question raised by the tragic events in Tucson is how much risk politicians must accept as part of their job. Elected officials live with risk every day. Only a handful of congressional leaders have security protection: the top leaders and occasionally a member who has received extraordinary threats. The rest carry on their duties fully exposed to whatever fury may await them, whether rhetorical insults hurled from a crowd at a town hall meeting or the violent act of a sick individual with access to a gun.
It's likely that members of Congress, or candidates running for other offices, will reconsider how they hold public events. Most elected officials will be reluctant to curtail direct contact with their constituents, although security precautions will probably be enhanced. Many citizens probably will continue to attend these events, but after Saturday's shootings some may choose to stay home rather than potentially expose themselves to acts of violence. Electronic town halls, no substitute for the give-and-take of public meetings, may become more commonplace, to the detriment of all.
The examples of heated interactions between politicians and constituents have increased. At the height of the health-care debate, angry citizens confronted their elected leaders at town hall meetings. In at least one case, a member of Congress was warned by police to stay away because of threats that had been received. The audience was outraged, both by the absence of the House member and by the police presence at the meeting, which some took as an insult in a country where peaceable assembly is guaranteed by the Constitution.
Those health-care town hall meetings became a symbol of the boiling anger of a portion of the electorate that helped to define the politics of 2010. Republican House leaders, perhaps mindful of the inflammatory power of the health-care debate, have announced that they will postpone Wednesday's scheduled vote to repeal President Obama's health-care law - a gesture of respect for Giffords and the other victims of the Tucson shootings and a sign of restraint at a moment the country needs it.
But the debates over health care and other issues that divide Republicans and Democrats will resume, as they must. The broader question, now the subject of intense but civil discussion, is whether the political culture is too heated and too supercharged - which people across the political spectrum agree is the case - and if so what can or should be done about it.
Politicians in both parties have said this is not a time for one side to try to score political points against the other over who bears responsibility for these conditions, though there is plenty of finger-pointing in the blogosphere and on Twitter. The reality is everyone bears some responsibility, from politicians to political operatives to the media to ordinary Americans.
Right now, the conduct of politics and political campaigns too easily slides from lively debate to destructive competition in ways large and small. The Center for Political Participation at Allegheny College, together with Indiana University-Purdue University at Fort Wayne, has been looking at the question of civility in politics. A poll taken just before the November elections found that six in 10 people said politics had become less civil since Obama took office. That was an increase from the 48 percent who said so in April.
That may be one reason the words of Clarence Dupnik, the sheriff of Pima County, Ariz., have resonated so powerfully since Saturday's shootings. Decrying the tone of much of today's political debate, he said: "People tend to pooh-pooh this business about all the vitriol we hear inflaming the American public by people who make a living off of doing that. That may be free speech, but it's not without consequences."
Tamping down some of the inflammatory rhetoric may not prevent future acts of violence by mentally unstable individuals. But it's possible that out of what happened in Tucson there will be some positive changes, at least for a time - whether that means measures to make the everyday lives of elected officials more safe, or a more sober approach to resolving legitimate differences over how to solve the country's problems.