Despite the circumstances, there was no anger, no outrage; just a few dozen people, many in their 20s or 30s, huddled together against the icy wind on the steps of the Capitol to mark a tragic momemt of our times. There were no signs with angry messages, just candles. They were there to show support for Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot through the head Saturday morning while hosting an event for constituents in her Tucson district.
The small group was informally organized on Facebook by Jason Gooljer, 31, an IT specialist from Virginia. Gooljer and his co-organizer, Helen Luryi, didn’t have any connection to Giffords, Capitol Hill, or even Arizona.
“I wanted to light some candles with people,” Gooljer said. He said he thought, “this is D.C.; isn’t anyone going to do anything here?”
Such was the attitude of most of the small group, who stood silently in a circle shielding candles from the blowing wind as nine or 10 Capitol policeman looked on from a distance. Some participants offered reasons as to why they were there: One was tired of violence, one was a former House Armed Services committee staffer, and a group of three young women were Arizonans. They just wanted to pay their respects.
Among the crowd was Charles Butler, a 41-year-old D.C. Public Schools teacher and gay rights activists who previously only knew Giffords as a supporter of his civil rights. “I was just incredibly moved, and I wanted to come out and show support for someone who’s shown support for us,” he said.
A common theme was a lack of anger at the suspect, 22-year-old Jared Loughner, who appeared to have left behind a trail of anti-government comments on social networking web sites. He seemed like an “awfully disturbed young man,” Butler said. Dana Mozie, a consultant, said he had feared for this moment because of the possibility that someone might go overboard in response to political rhetoric.
More common was a frustration with the state of politics in America and a sense of disbelief that the day’s events had transpired. “I never thought it could get this bad,” a bewildered Gooljer wondered.
“Words can’t express how horrifying it is. It’s completely senseless,” said Rick Rosendall, an IT specialist with the Labor Department. “When you resort to that … extreme rhetoric, that denies any chance of mutual respect. It undermines our ability to govern ourselves and to deal with one another as fellow citizens. And that is harmful to our country. I don’t know what kind of patriotism justifies treating your neighbors as enemies,” he said. He added that he hoped politicians who use violent rhetoric and gun metaphors would change their campaign tactics.
Though the vigil was by no means a witch hunt for a culprit, some of the attendees – often when pressed by reporters – criticized Sarah Palin’s use of a diagram with crosshairs over certain Congressional districts that she saw as targets in the upcoming election. Giffords had been a target. “Who says, ‘I’m going to reload’?” Gooljer said, referring to another Palin comment. “What are you saying when you say that?” he asked.
But most of the group seemed content to lean against each other and reflect for a few minutes before scattering in separate directions. They just wanted to light some candles with people.