10 Jan 2011

Arizona shooting ignites debate over US political vitriol

The shooting of US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords has sparked a debate over the rhetoric of US politics, but a former Republican presidential hopeful tells Channel 4 News there is “no connection”.

The exact motives of the suspect charged with the murder and the attempted assassination of Gabrielle Giffords remain unclear, but the shooting spree has ignited a fierce debate over the angry rhetoric used in American politics.

Although seemingly united in grief during the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Republican and Tea Party activists have hit back at apparent accusations that the Right – and particularly Sarah Palin – are being blamed for the actions of an individual described as mentally unstable.

“The rhetoric about hatred, about mistrust of government, about paranoia of how government operates, and to try to inflame the public on a daily basis, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, has impact on people, especially who are unbalanced personalities to begin with,” Clarence Dupnik, the sheriff of Pima County said after the shootings.

Arizona shooting ignites debate over US political vitriol

This week Republicans planned a vote to repeal President Barack Obama‘s controversial healthcare legislation – a law that saw the Tea Party movement erupt on a national scale. That vote, along with other planned legislative activity, has now been postponed.

‘Sarah Palin’s target list’

Giffords had warned that heated rhetoric had prompted violent threats against her and vandalism at her office following the healthcare vote.

She also warned that Palin and her supporters had gone too far when they issued a map prior to November’s mid-term elections which had gun sights marked over the Democratic seats the Tea Party was targeting.

Arizona shooting ignites debate over US political vitriol

Giffords said at the time: “We are on Sarah Palin’s targeted list. The way that she has it depicted with the crosshairs of the gun sight over our district. When people do that they have to realise there are consequences to that action.”

The image is no longer available on Sarah Palin’s website – although it can still be viewed on the former governor’s Facebook profile.

In the blogosphere, some have suggested it is just an unfortunate image in a country where guns can play a big part in ordinary life. In Palin’s own reality television series – which finished at the weekend – the former governor can be seen hunting with family in Alaska.

Others have seen the image and similar political rhetoric as hate-filled incitement.

One Palin staffer has tried to suggest the campaign map has nothing to do with guns but that the crosshairs are “surveyor’s symbols”. Aide Rebecca Mansour took to Twitter to defend Palin’s “Take Back the 20” campaign and has called attempts to politicise the shooting “repulsive”.


But other tweeters pointed to a Sarah Palin tweet in May where she rallied supporters saying, “Don’t retreat, instead – RELOAD!”

Others have suggested that a number of apparently inflammatory comments on Palin’s Facebook profile – where condolences to Giffords and those killed were posted – have been removed.

Facebook spokeswoman Randi Zuckerberg said that following the Arizona shootings the online debate “exploded”. The number one topic discussed was “Is Sarah Palin to blame?” she said.

“We’re seeing heated debates on both sides of the story,” Zuckerberg told ABC News.

Arizona shooting ignites debate over US political vitriol

Tea Party campaign badges


This is not the first time Sarah Palin, the self described “pitbull in lipstick”, has sparked controversy with her campaigns, or her activity online.

In November she was forced to backtrack after recommending an online comment on Twitter from a controversial conservative writer that labelled Obama as a “Taliban Muslim”.

Pundits have suggested that whether the shootings were politically motivated or not, a change could be coming to American politics.

“The relationship between electors and the elected may have been fundamentally changed in America,” Channel 4 News Washington Correspondent Sarah Smith says.

“Commentators are asking whether this appalling attack will be the event that brings political discourse back from the brink – or whether we are about to witness a series of attacks like those in the late 1960s, the last time vitriolic political arguments turned tragically violent.”

Former Republican Presidential hopeful Pat Buchanan told Channel 4 News that politics had nothing to do with the shooting.

“I don’t believe there’s been any evidence that, even though American rhetoric is very overheated, that this in any way influenced this individual. He’s been apparently obsessed with this congresswoman for three years….but it does not seem that that could conceivably be a motive which with any normal person would have caused this massacre,” he said.

He said rhetoric getting too “hot” was a bad thing, but also said that trying to point fingers at any one political figure for this massacre was also wrong.

“I think that there’s no connection whatsoever between Sarah Palin, her campaign in the fall against various Democrats, and what happened, and I think the suggestion that there is, is itself demagoguery of the worst kind,” he said.