In one of the most shocking outbursts of political violence in American history, Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head at close range Saturday morning while talking with constituents outside a grocery store in Tucson. Giffords, a third-term Democrat, was gravely injured in the attack launched by a gunman who opened fire on the sidewalk hitting 18 people, killing at least six. Among the dead are a young child, a federal judge and a Giffords aide.
The attack was a disheartening reminder of the increasingly vitriolic nature of the national political debate and led to an urgent search for meaning among horrified members of Congress, President Obama and the country at large.
“We don’t yet know what provoked this unspeakable act,” President Barack Obama said in an address Saturday, after dispatching FBI Director Robert Mueller to Arizona to lead the investigation into the shooting.
“We are going to get to the bottom of this, and we are going to get through this,” Obama said.
Congressional scholar Norm Ornstein, who spent New Year's with Giffords and her family, said the shooting was a tragically vivid illustration of the security challenges facing the nation's lawmakers.
"They move around more than anyone else, but they get zero protection," Ornstein said in an interview. "It would cost billions of dollars to give all of them the kind of round-the-clock protection that goes to the secretary of state or national security advisor."
The condemnation of the violence was bipartisan, with some of the most intense reaction coming from Republicans. Republican Sarah Palin posted a condolences notice on her Facebook page shortly after the news broke; Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., said she was "stunned and angered" that Giffords, who entered Congress with her, had been "savagely gunned down." And Giffords' home state senator, John McCain, R-Ariz., said the perpetrator of the assassination attempt deserves "the contempt of all decent people."
Yet Ornstein said the current political environment is the most toxic since the legendarily ugly partisan brawls of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
"The differences are that today there are no limits on what is allowable discourse -- you can call someone a traitor, say they're un-American, and there are no repercussions," he said. "And the messages spread over the Web and Fox News so quickly that they can provide the fodder for people who are already unbalanced."
Rep. Raul Grijalva, another Arizona Democrat, warned that unless the nation's leaders begin to soften the harsh tone of political discourse, politicians may be entering an era of needing greater protection. “This is a way to resolve our disagreements? Elected officials are expendable?” exclaimed Grijalva, whose district neighbors Giffords’, in an interview with the National Journal.
Giffords was flown by helicopter to University of Arizona Medical Center in Tucson, where she was out of surgery and in critical condition while responding to commands. The chief surgeon, Dr. Peter Rhee, said he was “very optimistic” following Giffords’s surgery, saying the next 24 hours would provide more clarity about her prospects for recovery. The bullet, he said, went through her brain.
Police said they had taken into custody 22-year-old Jared Loughner into custody. Giffords was talking to two constituents at a "Congress on Your Corner" event outside a Safeway grocery store when the gunman ran up from behind her and fired from approximately four feet away using a pistol with an extended magazine, police said. The suspect was then wrestled to the ground.
Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik said at a Saturday night press conference that two suspects may have been involved. Referring to Loughner, already in custody, Dupnik said authorities were "not convinced that he acted alone."
"There's some reason to believe that he came to this location with another individual" and that the other may have been involved, Dupnik said. Dupnik confirmed that six victims had died and that all 19 had been shot. He said Giffords had been the target.
Dupnik said that Roll had come to the event after attending morning Mass to say hello to Giffords. "Unfortunately he was in the wrong place at the wrong time," Dupnik said.
"I think it's time as a country that we need to do a little soul-searching," he said, adding, "This has not become the nice United States of America that most of us grew up in."
U.S. District Chief Judge John Roll, appointed to the federal bench by President George H.W. Bush in 1991, was killed in the shooting.
A moderate Democrat who staved off a stiff reelection challenge last November, Giffords, 40, is married to astronaut Mark Kelly, whom she met at a young leaders retreat organized by the National Committee on United States-China Relations in 2004, when Giffords was a state senator. The shooting drew strong condemnations from across the political spectrum.
Speaker John Boehner said he was “horrified” by the shooting and called it a sad day for the country.
“An attack on one who serves is an attack on all who serve. Acts and threats of violence against public officials have no place in our society,” Boehner said in a statement.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement, “Congresswoman Giffords is a brilliant and courageous member of Congress, bringing to Washington the views of a new generation of national leaders. It is especially tragic that she was attacked as she was meeting with her constituents whom she serves with such dedication and distinction.”
McCain, Arizona’s senior senator, issued an impassioned condemnation. "Whoever did this; whatever their reason, they are a disgrace to Arizona, this country and the human race, and they deserve and will receive the contempt of all decent people and the strongest punishment of the law."
Giffords’s press release said the Saturday morning “Congress on Your Corner” event would allow "residents of Arizona’s 8th Congressional District to meet their congresswoman one-on-one and discuss with her any issue, concern or problem involving the federal government."
There has been growing concern that the country’s elevated political temperature might result in the kind of violence that erupted in Tuscon Saturday. In October, national AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka told National Journal the heated rhetoric reminded him of the vitriol that greeted John F. Kennedy in Dallas in November 1963.
"Our country's been there a couple of times before, and with one exception, we've always taken the high road," Trumka said. "You remember when John Kennedy got off the plane in Dallas, Texas, there were people on the airwaves talking about doing violence to the president. And what happened?”
The last U.S. elected federal official killed in office was Rep. Leo Ryan, a California Democrat, who was shot in Guyana in 1978.
Maine Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree said she was concerned the attack would lead to a “chilling effect” on members’ interactions with their constituents.
“Honestly, this does give you pause, for the security of our staff, for your own families,” Pingree said on CNN Saturday afternoon.
Billy House and Yochi Dreazen contributed to this report. contributed to this article.