The reverberations of Saturday’s shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., rumbled through Washington as shocked members of Congress focused on the state of the nation’s political discourse.
The early reactions unveiled a split between those who said the shooting reflected the passionate tone of partisan debate in the country and others who said the rampage that killed six people was the work of a deranged individual.
On NBC’s Meet the Press Sunday, a fellow member of the Arizona delegation, Republican Rep. Trent Franks said it was ironic that when Giffords “was out doing her job as a member of Congress, some deranged degenerate shot her down. And I will tell you that I think that’s an attack not only on freedom and the country itself; it’s an attack on humanity.”
He called Giffords “a precious, decent woman" who "did not deserve what happened to her.”
The suspected gunman, Jared Loughner, Franks said, “had no respect for innocent human life” and “was willing – whatever his statement was – he was willing to kill someone, to kill many people to make it.”
Franks: Don't give shooter 'too much credit'
But he cautioned, “We don’t want to give this Loughner too much credit here."
Franks disputed the idea that "he was some person making a grand political statement. This guy was a deranged lunatic that had no respect for his fellow human beings and completely rejected any kind of constitutional foundation of this nation.”
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo. and Rep. Debbie Wassermann Schultz, D-Fla., disagreed with Franks, arguing that intemperate rhetoric from politicians and from news media personalities might encourage some individuals to act violently.
Durbin, the Democratic whip in the Senate, cited imagery of crosshairs on political opponents and Sarah Palin's combative rallying cry, "Don't retreat; reload."
"These sorts of things, I think, invite the kind of toxic rhetoric that can lead unstable people to believe this is an acceptable response," Durbin said Sunday on CNN's State of the Union.
On Meet the Press, Wasserman Schultz cited a radio talk show host in Florida who said during last fall’s campaign, “We will use bullets if ballots don’t work.”
MSNBC talk show host Keith Olbermann said in a “special comment” on his program Saturday night that “once in a clumsy metaphor" he had "made an unintended statement” about Hillary Clinton on his program during the 2008 campaign. “It sounded as if it was a call of physical violence.”
Olbermann apologized for making that statement. He said, "Violence, or the threat of violence, has no place in our Democracy, and I apologize for and repudiate any act or anything in my past that may have even inadvertently encouraged violence."
Cleaver, too, saw a danger in heated rhetoric coming from politicians and news media personalities.
Worries about 'toxic' political debate
“We are in a dark place in this country right now. And the atmospheric condition is toxic,” said Cleaver. “Much of it originates here in Washington, D.C., and we export it around the country.”
He said he agreed with Franks that no one yet knows why Loughner went on his shooting spree on Saturday. But “it doesn’t matter however,” he argued. “This ought to be a wake-up call to not only members of Congress but to the people in this country that we are headed in the wrong direction.”
Cleaver said “what happened in the debate is one person or one side, Republicans or Democrats, it doesn’t matter, they say ‘I’m right and you’re evil’ and that’s what damaging this country.”
He said inflamed debate in Congress had become “entertainment” for some Americans “but for some, it gives them an excuse to exercise the bitterness that may be deep inside of them.”
Cleaver cited as an example the incident last week when a visitor to House gallery shouted out a statement claiming President Obama was not born in the United States. He called on members of Congress to “turn down the volume” of their own rhetoric and exercise more civility.
“The public is being riled up” to the point where town hall meetings with constituents are becoming a volatile and even dangerous, he said.
Freshman Republican: Don't stifle debate
Rep. Raul Labrador, R- Idaho, just elected last November, said “We have to be careful not to blame one side or the other, because both sides are guilty of this. You have extremes on both sides. You have crazy people on both sides.”
Labrador also said “we can’t use this as a moment to try to stifle one side or the other. We can’t use this as a moment to say, one side doesn’t have a right to talk about the issues they are passionate about.”
On ABC’s This Week, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D- Md., while not saying that the gunman in Tucson was motivated by any statements he may have heard in political debates, said the problem for Congress is how to discuss issues without “somehow crossing a line in a way that can lead to supercharged rhetoric that could have unintended consequences.”
Rep. Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y., said “we meet with our constituents on a daily basis and that cannot be lost” due to fears of members of Congress being assaulted.
Crowley said, “We have to evaluate everything that’s gone on: the motives behind these shootings, not only of Gabby but of the judge and the six people that were killed” and “make assessments after we know everything about what took place.”
On the same program, syndicated columnist George Will blamed the "ravenous" appetite of cable television talk shows for controversial guests and provocative comments.
“People fill the time often by going to extremes, it makes better television, makes crisper television," Will said. "So there’s a structure driven by technology that gives our debates a kind of artificial ferocity and clarity.”
Will said Americans will want to know whether the gunman in Tucson had a political motive or whether he was a mentally ill person. “We don’t know where on the continuum this falls.”
Will said it would be better for country if it turns out the gunman is a deranged person rather than someone acting from a political motive.
Meanwhile, House Speaker John Boehner said Sunday morning in a statement from his district in Ohio that “an attack on one who serves is an attack on all who serve. Such acts of violence have no place in our society…. This inhuman act should not and will not deter us from our calling to represent our constituents and to fulfill our oaths of office. No act, no matter how heinous, must be allowed to stop us from our duty.”