Civility and its Discontents

Gabrielle Giffords and the aftermath of the Tucson shooting

by by Emma Wohl

illustration by by Robert Sandler

On January 25, 2012—a year and several weeks after she was shot in the head outside of a grocery store in her hometown of Tucson, Arizona—US Representative Gabrielle Giffords announced her resignation. In her letter to the Speaker of the House, she closed with the vow “I will recover and will return.”

Tucson had spent the last year grappling not only with the aftermath of the massacre, which left eighteen wounded and six dead, but also with harsh border security and anti-immigration bills that had already created a national controversy. The city became the focal point for examination of the polarizing, even violent tone used by candidates in its most recent Congressional election and of Arizona’s increasing Conservatism.

But this narrative, while delving deeply into the past of 21-year-old shooter Jared Lee Loughner, did little to examine what policy decisions had allowed a mentally unstable young man to purchase a firearm and 33 rounds of ammunition.

In its media representation, the events of January 8 were transformed: instead of a shooting, they became the culmination of a series of increasingly partisan actions within the state, violence caused by violent rhetoric. And it was ultimately this rhetoric—not the laws that allowed Loughner to slip through the cracks—that got attention from national politicians.

The day in question
On January 8, 2011, Gabrielle Giffords was doing outreach on a street corner in northwest Tucson when a single shooter opened fire.

“Before the shooting, the political climate in Tucson was becoming shaky,” said Celia Ampel, Tucson native and student at the Missouri School of Journalism. “There was an ideological gap between Southern Arizonans and people in the Phoenix area, especially those in the statehouse.”

The coverage of January 8 exploded those differences and highlighted the deep political schisms within Giffords’s district.

As reports flew about conditions at the scene of the shooting, stories were surfacing about previous threats to the Congresswoman’s safety: a distressed constituent had thrown a brick at her office window after her vote in support of health care reform under the Patriot Protection and Affordable Care Act; her challenger in the 2010 Congressional election, Jesse Kelly, held a campaign event where his supporters could shoot a fully loaded M15 rifle—the event was called “Get on Target for Victory.”

These stories were immediately linked to the January 8 shooting. But the rapid-fire connections made in the media may have exaggerated the connection. Soon, not just isolated acts of violence, but several years worth of extremist legislation were being associated with the shooting, in an attempt to make it a coherent, understandable narrative.

A harsh spotlight
One New York Times headline from January 9 read: “Shooting Casts a Harsh Spotlight on Arizona’s Unique Politics.” In a press conference, Tucson Police Sherriff Clarence Dupnik called Arizona a “Mecca for prejudice and bigotry.” The national media connected the shooting to the most notorious pieces of legislation proposed by Arizona’s legislature in the past few years. The Times story mentioned SB1070’s strict regulation of the Arizona-Mexico border; HB2281, which banned ethnic studies classes in public schools; the shooting of a rancher, possibly by border crossers; and state politicians’ attempts to create a different birth certificate for children of illegal immigrants under HB2562 and SB1309.

“It was as if Arizona somehow created the setting for the shocking episode,” the Times article stated. The article admitted the connections were tenuous, but links had already been made between the state’s politics and the shooting, a connection that informed the discourse of the event.

Congress members praised Giffords at the time of her resignation­—House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called her “the brightest star among us.” But the remarks did not address the shooting itself. No formal hearing, on either the state or national level, ever looked into the policy decisions that had made it possible. The coverage of the shooting’s aftermath was looking through laws to condemn the words with which they were discussed.

Discourse of civility
As information about the shooter surfaced a year ago, observers tried—and ultimately failed—to find indications of extreme political leanings that could have influenced his actions. At the same time, an advertisement put out by Sarah Palin’s SuperPAC surfaced, showing the crosshairs of a rifle over Giffords’s district and telling readers, “Don’t retreat; reload.”

Observers seized on this ad, claiming the violence it advocated could drive a person to kill. reported that 35% of participants in a CNN poll blamed Palin’s ad directly for the shooting.

Civility, as an antidote to this kind of violent rhetoric, became a rallying cry for District Director Ron Barber, one of those injured in the shooting and, as of Februrary 9, 2012, a candidate in the special election to fill Giffords’s seat in Congress. From his bed at Tucson Medical Center, Barber organized the first annual Concert for Civility to commemorate the shooting. His family endowed the Fund for Civility, Respect and Understanding, dedicated to sustaining “the outpouring of goodwill, compassion and kindness” that emerged from the shooting.

But this rallying cry for civility seems out of place in the context of the shooting itself. The musings of Jared Lee Loughner did not suggest a die-hard devotee of any political faction. His former classmates described him as a conspiracy theorist. Loughner had posted a series of YouTube videos in the year before the shooting proclaiming a desire to return to the gold standard and denouncing what he deemed a an epidemic of national illiteracy. At a Giffords function in 2007, he asked Giffords, “What is government if words have no meaning?” Her response, to him, was unsatisfactory.

After the shooting, police found a letter from Giffords among Loughner’s personal possessions in the same box as a note reading “Die bitch” and another that read, “Assassination plans have been made.”

Alternate history
Loughner’s peers and teachers from high school and the community college from which he had been expelled said they had known he was mentally disturbed. “He is one of those whose picture you see on the news, after he has come into class with an automatic weapon,” one former classmate told a friend in an email the summer before the shooting.

Despite his history of drug use and run-ins with the police, Loughner was able to walk into Walmart the morning of January 8 and buy enough ammunition to shoot 19 people. Gun control activists noted holes in existing legislation, and acknowledged the need for national unity and dialogue.

In an op-ed in the Arizona Daily Star last March, President Obama called on politicians to “get beyond wedge issues and stale political debates.” However, proponents of tougher gun control eventually grew frustrated that no concrete steps were being taken to prevent gun-related violence.

“The fact that we’re now six months out, there’s not a single step from the White House, there’s not been a single congressional hearing on Tucson or the policy problems that made it possible, is not encouraging,” Mark Glaze, director of the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns, told NPR on July 8, 2011.

Loughner’s medical and criminal history raised questions of how to implement accurate background checks that would spot drug problems and mental health issues. White House officials promised in July that the process of “working through these complex issues” was underway.

In Arizona, State Representative Steve Gallardo, a gun control advocate, acknowledged that, even in the light of the shooting, legislation limiting gun ownership has little chance of ever passing. But, he said, “we have to start the education.”

Meanwhile, State Senator Ron Gould has renewed the fight to allow guns on college campuses. A similar bill was vetoed by Governor Jan Brewer last year, but Gould was optimistic that she would approve it this time around.

Looking ahead
On February 11, the US Navy announced a ship, the USS Gabrielle Giffords, to be added to its fleet. “It’s very appropriate that LCS 10 be named for someone who has become synonymous with courage, who has inspired the nation with remarkable resiliency and showed the possibilities of the human spirit,” said Navy Secretary Ray Mabus.

But little has been done to address the shooting itself. Even Giffords, in a YouTube clip explaining her resignation, quickly moved past the shooting. She spoke neither of gun control nor of the tenor of the national discourse, but of the same issues that have been on her agenda since the beginning of her term in Congress: “jobs, border security, veterans,” with a promise to “return.”

The drive for civility may force politicians and pundits to stop themselves from speaking in the violent terminology that was once acceptable and expected. While the tone of discourse and controversial laws are harshly critiqued, the substance of those laws remains almost entirely unchallenged.

EMMA WOHL B’14 doesn’t want to “get beyond wedge issues.”