A Democratic Congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords, who had been the target of often incendiary rhetoric from the Tea Party, was gravely wounded in a Tucson hospital last night after she was shot in the head at a political gathering in her constituency in Tucson, Arizona.
A spokeswoman for an area hospital said that Representative Giffords remained in critical condition after surgery. At least 18 people were struck in the fusillade and as many as six were dead, among them a federal judge and a child. Others remained in grave condition. Police said that the suspected gunman had been taken into custody and named him as Jared Lee Loughner. Officials were unable to offer specific information on what his motive may have been. The Congresswoman had fought a hard election in November, barely fending off a Tea Party opponent.
"This morning, in an unspeakable tragedy, a number of Americans were shot in Tucson, Arizona," President Barack Obama said in a statement. "We know that some have passed away and that Representative Giffords is gravely wounded." At a press conference later, he called her an "extraordinary public servant" and a personal friend. "I am hopeful she is going to pull through," he said. The surgeons who treated the representative were said to be "optimistic" about her recovery after surgery for a wound created by a bullet that passed through her head and exited again.
The shooting of Rep Giffords, 40, who is married to a Nasa astronaut and space shuttle commander, is both a personal tragedy and a political one that is likely to cast a dark shadow on the American electoral scene, particularly if there is any credible suggestion that the assailant was incited to violence by anti-liberal sentiments from Tea Party zealots. Already last night, an intense debate had begun about the changing tone of political discourse in America that can seem sometimes to veer into extreme language that could incite violence.
It could also potentially damage Sarah Palin, a figurehead of the Tea Party, who had identified Rep Giffords as one of the Democratic members of Congress she wanted to see defeated in November's mid-term elections. Ms Palin's Facebook page at one point featured cross-hair symbols superimposed over the constituencies of Rep Giffords and others.
Witnesses to the attack, outside a Safeway supermarket in Tucson, said the assailant sprang out as if from nowhere and began spraying the small crowd with bullets. The weapon was later identified as a 9mm handgun. Some bullets went through the store windows to the shopping aisles inside. The Tea Party Express, a high profile group in the wider movement, quickly condemned the shooting. "It is appalling that anyone would commit such unthinkable violence. These heinous crimes have no place in America," it said in a statement.
Though a centrist, Rep Giffords earned the political wrath of conservatives for supporting the healthcare reform law, sometimes known as Obamacare. Her constituency offices in Arizona had its windows smashed after the healthcare vote last spring. She said then that she had received threats.
In the run-up to November's elections she faced formidable opposition from Jesse Kelly, the Tea Party-backed Republican who, among other things, drew national attention in June when he invited voters to join him and shoot a fully automatic M16 assault rifle.
Investigators were checking social networking accounts listed in the name of Jared Loughner last night. A final message on a MySpace account registered in that name said "goodbye friends" before it was taken offline. On YouTube, an account registered in the name of Jared Lee Loughner, listed as being aged 22 and from Tucson, contained footage uploaded within the last month. Text appears referring to brainwashing, mind control, and ideas about new currencies and languages. "All humans are in need of sleep. Jared Loughner is a human. Hence, Jared Loughner is in need of sleep," one message said. Another said: "If you call me a terrorist then the argument to call me a terrorist is ad hominem. You call me a terrorist. Thus, the argument to call me a terrorist is ad hominem." The account lists Mein Kampf, the Communist Manifesto and Gulliver's Travels as the creator's favourite books.
Even in the face of the harsh conservative opposition, Rep Giffords won re-election to a third term in her Tucson district. She was on Capitol Hill on Friday and had returned to Tucson at the weekend to spend time with constituents. The low-key event at the Safeway store was billed as "Congress on Your Corner", where voters were invited to express their concerns to her.
Arizona is a state with several layers of political tensions, not least those triggered by public worry about illegal immigration. The state, which borders Mexico, passed a law last year allowing police to challenge anyone on the street whom they suspected to be in the US without proper papers. The slain federal judge, John Roll, was given FBI protection for a while last year after he received death threats for allowing a lawsuit by illegal immigrants against a local rancher to go forward.