By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 10, 2011; 3:05 PM
I'm writing this column as if there were a heavy, black drape around its borders. It would commemorate the lives of John M. Roll and Gabe Zimmerman, two federal employees killed, along with four others, by the crazed gunman who critically wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords just outside Tucson on Saturday.
Of course, the lives of the others who were killed or wounded in the rampage are every bit as important as those of the federal employees. But because Giffords, an Arizona Democrat, apparently was the assassination target of Jared Loughner, the connection between government work and the shooting is clear.
Loughner, 22, is facing two counts of murder and three counts of attempted murder, and court documents allege that he had fixated on Giffords.
It already had been a difficult period when it comes to violence against federal workers, and this year is starting out worst than last.
"This tragedy marks the latest event in a horrific trend of violent attacks on those who work for our country," said Patricia Niehaus, president of the Federal Managers Association. "From the 2010 assault on an IRS office in Austin, Texas, to the harassment of census workers and the latest disaster in Tucson, fear for one's safety is becoming a way of life for federal employees at every level across our country. . . . Government employees should not have to fear for their everyday safety simply because they do the work necessary to keep our country on track."
Roll, 63, a federal judge, had stopped by to speak with Giffords as she met with constituents outside a supermarket. He previously had been the target of so many threats because of a decision favoring illegal immigrants that U.S. marshals once provided him protection. Zimmerman, 30 years old and engaged, was assisting Giffords as her community outreach director. When tea party activists protested at her office during the health-care debate, it was Zimmerman who reasoned with them.
Giffords was doing what good federal employees do - serving citizens.
Now, with a disturbing frequency, doing public service places people like Giffords and Roll and Zimmerman in the line of fire. Fed bashing takes on a new meaning when it goes from legitimate complaints about the role and operations of government and escalates to threats and violence against those who do the nation's work.
Niehaus echoed others when she said she is "deeply concerned that a growing disrespect for our nation's civil servants will only fuel the misguided actions of those who seek to impose harm on federal employees."
While it's too simplistic to blame violence on the anti-government rhetoric of elected officials and other personalities, Niehaus's concern is valid. Case in point: Sarah Palin's map with cross hairs on congressional districts, including Gifford's, now seems especially frightening.
"Policy differences are one thing; violent imagery in their service is another," said Carol A. Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association.
Rhetoric against federal workers has escalated from the day Ronald Reagan famously said "government is the problem" to last week's comment by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) that "the enemy is the bureaucracy."
If the bureaucracy is the enemy, what are those who work in it?
"Hateful rhetoric fuels disrespect for government, its employees and those elected to lead our nation and threatens their safety," said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. "While we can and should engage in spirited debate over policies and programs, focusing anger on a person or group of people could lead to tragic consequences."
The beginning of last year experienced one act of violence after another against federal workers.
l Last January, Stan Cooper, a security officer, was killed and a deputy U.S. marshal was wounded when a man with a shotgun entered a federal courthouse. The gunman apparently was upset because his Social Security disability benefits had been cut. Cooper and the marshal did their jobs. They protected the public and other federal workers in the building. But they paid a high price.
"It's hard to stop someone who comes through the door and starts shooting," Don Hardenbergh, a security consultant, said in the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
l In February, Joseph Stack, upset with the government and the IRS in particular, took out his anger with an act of suicidal terrorism. He flew his plane into an Austin building that contained Internal Revenue Service offices. It's a miracle that only one person was killed - Vernon Hunter, 68, a father of six, a Vietnam vet and a 30-year employee of the IRS.
l In March, Jeffrey Amos and Marvin Carraway, two Pentagon police officers, were wounded, not seriously, thankfully, during a shootout with John Patrick Bedell, a gunman who died when officers returned his fire.
l In December, Border Patrol Agent Brian A. Terry was killed while confronting a group of people suspected of preying on illegal immigrants near Nogales, Ariz. "It is a stark reminder of the very real dangers our men and women on the front lines confront every day as they protect our communities and the American people," said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
The Association of Administrative Law Judges cited 50 violent threats to judges and Social Security hearing offices from February through October last year, an increase of 56 percent over the previous reporting period.
"One judge was threatened with beheading and another by hanging," according to the association. "In one incident in Springfield, Missouri, a judge had to remove himself from a case when a file the judge was reviewing from a mental health professional revealed that the claimant had threatened to kill both the judge and a former governor of Missouri."
This has got to stop.