A new reality in American politics was taking shape yesterday as members of Congress, commentators and ordinary citizens saw ominous connections between the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson and the sometimes inflammatory atmosphere seen of late in this country's political discourse.
The political community's pause comes regardless of whether or not the man in custody is found to have been influenced by national debate on issues like immigration, healthcare or gun rights. Before anything else, members of Congress will reconsider their own security arrangements. But they may then consider that a new stigma is attached to anyone using language to score points that could potentially incite violence.
A week on Capitol Hill that had been destined to fizz once more with partisan tension, notably with the newly installed Republican majority in the House voting to repeal last year's healthcare reform law, will instead be one of grim reflection. The healthcare vote and all other legislative activities are suspended.
Talk of limiting the access of voters to their representatives has already started. "We can be shot down in our district, but we can also be shot walking over to the Capitol," said Democratic Representative Maxine Waters of California. "We have a lot of people outside who appear to be fragile emotionally. So we don't know when one will walk up and shoot us down. We're vulnerable, and there's no real way to protect us."
Even as Ms Giffords fought for her life, a parallel conversation erupted in the media and on the internet from politicians, social commentators and the public alike about how far into dangerous territory politics had strayed and, inevitably, who was most to blame. "Even if it's one lone flake, it's one lone flake operating against a backdrop of hyperbolic rage and personal demonisation," said David Simon, the creator of The Wire, a critically acclaimed television series about drug crime in Baltimore. "[The] gunman might not even know why he actually did this thing, or might have absurd reasons for doing it. But it's not a ridiculous speculation to suggest that American political culture has coarsened to the point where it might have just made a little more sense to him to proceed. God help us."
He was not alone in his distaste for the state of public debate. "The climate has gotten so toxic in our political discourse, setting up for this kind of reaction for too long," said Raul Grijalva, also a Democrat representative from Arizona. "Anybody who contributed to feeding this monster had better step back and realise they're threatening our form of government."
Ms Giffords herself warned against the trend last March when a Facebook page posted by Sarah Palin featured a map of the US, with cross hairs over the constituencies of Democratic representatives she wanted ousted in the November midterm elections.
"When people do things like that, they have to realise there are consequences," Ms Giffords, whose own constituency was singled out by the Palin map, said on MSNBC television.
The conservative right was braced for criticism that its followers and the television commentators that favour them, most notably including Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck, both of whom are on Rupert Murdoch's Fox News, were more responsible than anyone for introducing the words of violence to political discourse and likewise leaders of the anti-government Tea Party movement.
It was Sharron Angle of the Tea Party who, while trying unsuccessfully last year to unseat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada, muttered about "enemies in Congress" and added: "I hope we're not getting to Second Amendment remedies". (The amendment covers the right of citizens to bear arms.) In Alabama, another Tea Party runner aired an ad with an actor dressed as George Washington listening to an attack on President Barack Obama's policies. It then exhorted: "Gather your armies".
Liberal pundits have wasted no time in pointing fingers, including MSNBC's Keith Olbermann. He suggested that Beck and O'Reilly "begin their next broadcasts with solemn apologies for ever turning to the death-fantasies and the dreams of bloodlust, for ever having provided just the oxygen to those deep in madness to whom violence is an acceptable solution". He also singled out Ms Palin, suggesting she be "dismissed from politics" if she doesn't acknowledge her role in inciting hatred.
Ms Palin, who may be positioning herself to compete for the Republican presidential nomination, offered her "thoughts and prayers" to the victims of the Tucson attack. Some of her supporters rallied quickly to defend her and others on the right, accusing the left of trying to capitalise on a horrific event.
"The left is using this tragedy to score political points," wrote Erick Erickson, the founder of the influential conservative blog site, RedState. "Let's not let them, yet again, spin this against the Tea Party movement, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, or Sarah Palin. That's both a profound lie and just another, though lesser, bit of evil."Reuse content