The White House briefing room stepped back into the Cold War today when press secretary Robert Gibbs found himself in a spontaneous debate with a Russian correspondent over the role that American freedoms played in the Arizona shootings.
Andrei Sitov, who covers Washington for the official Russian news agency TASS, was the last reporter Gibbs called on. Sitov is a fixture at the daily briefing, almost always asking straightforward questions about foreign policy. But on this day, he prefaced his question by offering “my condolences to all the Americans” grieving Saturday’s violence.
He then suggested that such an outburst of violence “does not seem all that incomprehensible” to foreigners. It is, he said, “the reverse side of freedom, unless you want restriction, unless you want a bigger role for the government in their lives.’
Gibbs cut him off, placing all the blame for the shooting on the lone gunman. He said that the victims were exercising “some very important, very foundational freedoms to this country: the freedom of speech, the freedom to assemble, the freedom to petition your government.”
Sitov shot back, “This is what I was talking about, exactly this.” He conceded the freedoms cited by Gibbs, but added, “And many people outside would also say, and the quote, unquote freedom of a deranged mind to react in a violent way is also American.”
Gibbs again objected: “I would disagree vehemently with that.” Such violence, he said, “is not American,” adding, “I think there's agreement on all sides of the political spectrum: Violence is never, ever acceptable.”
Gibbs went on, “We had people that died. We had people whose lives will be changed forever because of the deranged actions of a madman. Those are not American. Those are not in keeping with the important bedrock values by which this country was founded, and by which its citizens live each and every day of their lives in hopes of something better for those that are here.”
Gibbs then ended the briefing.
Afterwards, Sitov said he expected Gibbs's response. “There is no other thing a government spokesman can respond to this,” he said.
He viewed Gibbs’s remarks about freedoms as “a hint” about Russia’s restrictions on personal freedoms, Sitov said. “I take it in stride. It is legitimate.”
But Sitov did not back down from his main point. “We are offering condolences,” he said. But he said he has heard other Russians say, “And these people are lecturing others about values?”
The original version of this story reported Mr. Sitov's first name was Andre. It is Andrei.