Tucson shootings don't quell debate over political rhetoric

By Peter Wallsten
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 11, 2011; 12:33 AM

Across the ideological spectrum, officials and activists agreed after Saturday's Tucson killings that it was time to soften the harsh edges of America's raucous national dialogue.

But by Monday, a bitter debate had erupted over how to do it - and on whose terms.

On the right, former House speaker Newt Gingrich lashed out at liberals who have blamed the shooting rampage in part on tea-party-inspired anger, arguing these same liberals "cannot bring themselves" to draw connections between accused terrorists and "radical Islam ideology."

Rush Limbaugh accused Democrats of "rubbing their hands together" in anticipation of using the shootings as a political revitalization.

Glenn Beck reminded his radio listeners that there are "nut jobs on all sides."

Some on the left, meanwhile, continued to look for political links to Saturday's shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), noting that Giffords had been the subject of threats because of her support for President Obama's health-care overhaul and her opposition to Arizona's tough anti-illegal-immigration law.

Pima County Sheriff Charles W. Dupnik, a Democrat and political ally of Giffords's who began citing the role of political anger within hours of the shooting, took his comments a step further into partisan terrain Monday.

Dupnik told a Fox News interviewer that he sees "one party trying to block the attempts of another party to make this a better country."

And in a separate interview he went directly after Limbaugh.

"The kind of rhetoric that flows from people like Rush Limbaugh, in my judgment he is irresponsible, uses partial information, sometimes wrong information," Dupnik told ABC News's Diane Sawyer. "[Limbaugh] attacks people, angers them against government, angers them against elected officials, and that kind of behavior in my opinion is not without consequences."

The sharp exchanges came even as Obama and lawmakers in both parties observed a moment of silence to mourn the victims of Saturday's attack. The contrast illustrated the depths of the ideological and cultural conflicts dividing the country.

Even a gesture intended to bring Americans together did little to quiet the disputes over what lessons, if any, should be taken from the violence in Tucson. Monday seemed to mark an escalation by political adversaries to claim the mantle of decency and escape blame for caustic rhetoric.

"We have 24-hour coverage and if you let your political opposition have 12 or 15 hours unanswered, they have already determined what the conclusion of the story is," said Martin Medhurst, a Baylor University professor of rhetoric and communications. "To the extent we politicize tragedies, whether it's by the left or the right, it's unfortunate, but it has to be, because of the system we live in."

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) told the Associated Press that Dupnik's efforts to link the actions of a potentially deranged gunman to politics was "irresponsible."

An e-mail from the Tea Party Express, an activist group run by Republican political consultants, called liberals "disgusting" for linking the Tucson attack to conservative rhetoric. "It is quite clear that liberals are trying to exploit this shooting for their own political benefit, and they used deception and dishonesty to try and smear all of us and our beliefs," the group told supporters.

On her liberal blog Firedoglake, Jane Hamsher cautioned that there was no evidence to suggest that shooting suspect Jared Loughner acted out of political grievance. But she noted that the offices of Giffords and several other Democratic lawmakers were vandalized last year in the midst of the health-care debate. At the same time, Hamsher noted, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin (R) tweeted that conservatives should not "retreat" but should "reload."

"Instead of assessing the situation appropriately and exercising restraint, she poured gasoline on the fire," Hamsher wrote.

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, sent out an e-mail Monday night that also seemed to be aimed at prominent Republicans. "When there's talk of 'target lists' illustrated by gun sights," he wrote, "when there's talk of 'Second Amendment remedies' for political problems, when vitriol has gone as far as it did in the recent election season, it must be condemned as dangerous and unacceptable by leaders and citizens across the political spectrum."

Some politicians began looking to shield themselves from criticism of political tactics that may seem off-key in a post-Tucson world.

Newly elected Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who aired a television ad last year depicting him firing a bullet into the Democrats' cap-and-trade energy bill, told home-state reporters Monday that he would not run such an ad at this point. "It is a much more sensitive thing that we are dealing with right now," he said.

Still, Manchin, who has sought to forge alliances with Republicans, issued a written statement noting his desire to reach across the partisan divide - and defending his ad.

"The act of a deranged madman who commits a horrific act should not and cannot be confused with a metaphor about a piece of legislation," he said. "I have never targeted an individual, and I never would. This tragedy, I hope, serves as a call for common sense, and a wake-up call that we should all come together with common purpose to do what is best for our country."

Gingrich, who is pondering a 2012 run for president, chimed in during an interview on Chicago radio. He seized on the debate over the shootings as a way of accusing liberals of being weak on terrorism.

"Look, I think it's amazing that people who cannot bring themselves to connect any kind of radical Islamist ideology to the 126 people who've been indicted in the United States plotting terrorism, people who would immediately scream about ethnic profiling, people who on the left have every possible incentive to never allow any one to draw conclusions, suddenly say things that are just factually untrue," Gingrich said, according to quotes published on the radio station's Web site. "There's no evidence that I know of, that this person was anything except nuts."

"In a country with free speech, " he said, "people occasionally use strong language."

Later, Gingrich's office redistributed the weekend statement from him and his wife asking people to "join us in praying for Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and everyone shot in this tragic attack."

The e-mail also included information about Gingrich's upcoming trips to South Carolina and Iowa, early voting states in the GOP presidential nomination contest, and a link to a new poll comparing his favorability ratings to other potential contenders.

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