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“Politics in Arizona Have Become Fueled by Hate…Driven by Anger”: Rep. Raúl Grijalva on Shooting of Giffords

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Federal prosecutors have charged Jared Lee Loughner with the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ). She was shot in the back of the head at close range on Saturday morning outside a supermarket in Tucson, where she was holding an event called “Congress on Your Corner” to meet with constituents. In all, 20 people were shot, six were killed. The dead include U.S. District Judge John Roll, Giffords’ aide Gabriel Zimmerman, a nine-year-old girl born on Sept. 11, 2001, and three people in their late seventies. We speak with Giffords’ fellow Arizona House Representative, Raúl Grijalva, about the shooting. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Federal prosecutors have charged Jared Lee Loughner with the attempted assassination of Arizona Congress member Gabrielle Giffords, as well as the murders of her aide, Gabe Zimmerman, and the chief federal judge of the state.

Giffords, a Democrat representing the Tucson area, was shot in the back of the head at close range on Saturday morning outside a supermarket in Tucson, where she was holding an event called “Congress on Your Corner” to meet with constituents. After shooting Giffords, the gunman opened fire on the small crowd. In all, 20 people were shot, six were killed. The dead include U.S. District Judge John Roll, Giffords’ aide Gabe Zimmerman, a nine year-old girl born on 9/11, and three people in their late seventies.

Other federal charges against Loughner include two counts of attempting to kill a federal employee. More charges are expected.

The court documents filed Sunday suggest the attack was a premeditated assassination attempt. The FBI says, on an envelope, Loughner wrote, “I planned ahead,” “My assassination” and “Giffords.” He then signed the note. The envelope was kept in a safe at Loughner’s home alongside a letter from Giffords in 2007 thanking him for attending a meeting similar to the one he attacked on Saturday.

While the motivation for the attack remains unclear, the picture emerging of Loughner is of a severely disturbed 22-year-old with mental health issues. In September, Loughner was suspended from Pima County Community College after five run-ins with campus police for disruptive behavior. One student who attended class with him wrote an email to friends saying, quote, “We have a mentally unstable person in the class that scares the living crap out of me. He is one of those whose picture you see on the news, after he has come into class with an automatic weapon,” she wrote.

YouTube videos and other internet postings under his name suggest an obsession with bizarre anti-government grievances, including ramblings about currency policies and language control through grammar. Investigators are also exploring suspected links between Loughner and American [Renaissance], a group known for white supremacist, anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Loughner is scheduled to appear this afternoon in U.S. District Court in Phoenix.

The charges filed on Sunday came hours after doctors in Tucson gave an update on Giffords’ condition and said she’s able to respond to simple commands following emergency brain surgery. She remains sedated and in critical condition. Doctors said the bullet traversed the left side of her brain, entering from back, exiting the front. This is trauma physician Peter Rhee.

DR. PETER RHEE: Everybody’s going to be cautious about overcalling it, but I am optimistic. I was optimistic yesterday when I saw the case and I saw the brain and the amount of injury that had gone through. But overall, this is about as good as you’re going to get. You know, when you get shot in the head and the bullet goes through your brain, the chances of you living is very small, and the chances of you waking up and actually following commands is even much smaller than that. So this, so far, has been a very good situation. Hopefully it will stay that way. OK? Obviously we don’t know which way — which direction she’s going to go. It’s still very precarious at this time.

AMY GOODMAN: The White House announced on Sunday that President Obama will observe a moment of silence for the victims at 11:00 Eastern time today. Hours after the shooting Saturday, Obama made a televised statement from the White House.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We are still assembling all the facts, but we know that Representative Giffords was one of the victims. She is currently at a hospital in the area, and she is battling for her life. We also know that at least five people lost their lives in this tragedy. Among them were a federal judge, John Roll, who has served America’s legal system for almost 40 years, and a young girl, who was barely nine years old. I’ve spoken to Arizona Governor Jan Brewer and offered the full resources of the federal government. The suspect is currently in custody, but we don’t yet know what provoked this unspeakable act. Gabby Giffords was a friend of mine. She is not only an extraordinary public servant, but she is also somebody who is warm and caring. She is well liked by her colleagues and well liked by her constituents.

AMY GOODMAN: Gabrielle Giffords is 40 years old. She was elected to Arizona’s 8th congressional district in 2006. She narrowly won reelection in November against her Tea Party-backed Republican opponent Jesse Kelly, a former Marine who served in Iraq. In June, Kelly promoted a campaign event on his website that read, quote, “Get on Target for Victory in November. Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly.”

During the healthcare debate in 2009 and 2010, Giffords faced threats and acts of vandalism. A glass panel in her office was shattered, and at an outdoor event similar to the one where she was shot, a visitor dropped a gun. Giffords was also included on a controversial map issued by former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin that included crosshairs on various districts. In a tweet, Palin urged supporters: “Don’t Retreat–RELOAD!”

In March, Giffords appeared on MSNBC after the healthcare vote and spoke about the threats against her.

REP. GABRIELLE GIFFORDS: We have had hundreds and hundreds of protesters over the course of the last several months. Our office corner has really become an area where the Tea Party movement congregates. And the rhetoric is incredibly heated — not just the calls, but the emails, the slurs. So, I mean, things have really gotten spun up. And, I mean, you’ve got to think about it. Our democracy is a light — a beacon, really — around the world, because we effect change at the ballot box and not because of these, you know, outbursts of violence, in certain cases, and the yelling and the — you know, it’s just — you know, change is important. It’s a part of our process. But it’s really important that we focus on the fact that we have a democratic process.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: Do you think Republican members of the House, the Republican leadership, should have spoken out more forcefully to denounce this violence? Or are you satisfied with what they’ve said? For example, the Minority Leader, John Boehner, was on Fox News denouncing violence.

REP. GABRIELLE GIFFORDS: I think it’s important for all leaders, not just leaders of the Republican Party or the Democratic Party — there are certainly a lot of independents out there, that [inaudible] even will not resonate towards — but community leaders, figures in our community, to say, “Look, we can’t stand for this.” I mean, this is a situation where people don’t — I mean, really we need to realize that the rhetoric and firing people up and, you know, even things — for example, we’re on Sarah Palin’s targeted list. But the thing is that the way that she has it depicted has the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district. When people do that, they’ve got to realize there’s consequences to that action.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Giffords was also worried about her safety in recent days. Virginia Congressmember James Moran told the Washington Post that she told him just a week and a half ago that she was worried about the potential for violence. Moran said, quote, “Gabby did tell me that she was concerned. She did say it’s really bad out there, particularly in a district like [hers]. She was very much troubled that Sarah Palin put her in the crosshairs,” Congressmember Moran said.

For more, we’re going to Washington, D.C., to the Capitol Rotunda, where we’re joined by Giffords’ colleague, Arizona Congressmember Raúl Grijalva. Over the past year, Congressmember Grijalva has also received numerous threats, including having a suspicious package covered in swastikas sent to his office and having a bullet shot through his district office in Yuma, Arizona.

Congressmember Raúl Grijalva, welcome to Democracy Now! First, your reaction to the carnage in your community in Tucson?

REP. RAÚL GRIJALVA: Yeah, it’s shock. It’s disbelief. It’s frightening and very sobering. And some gratitude that many of the victims are doing well and the optimism that is being expressed by the doctors regarding Gabby’s recovery is prayers answered and very good to hear. And for the people that were killed, what a sad moment. You can’t really fathom the amount of distress that it’s caused everybody, but you can appreciate the fact that, for all of us, it is now becoming a very sobering time to think about not only what has happened, but what we’re going to do about this.

AMY GOODMAN: Gabe Zimmerman, the social worker who was the aide to Congressmember Giffords who was killed, you knew his family well.

REP. RAÚL GRIJALVA: Yeah, his mom, Emily. The world is so strange and connected. His mom was my first boss, when I got a real job, and — for the City of Tucson. And I consider her a dear friend. She just retired. Gabe was a good public servant and a young man with a great personal future and a great public future. And what a loss for all of us and all of us in our community.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about Judge John Roll, who was killed.

REP. RAÚL GRIJALVA: Forty years in the justice system, a chief justice, appointed by first President Bush, a fair man, many difficult cases, constantly pushing for resources because of the huge workload in that court regarding district cases of immigration, drug cases, horribly overworked court. And John, in front of the Senate and in front of Congress, constantly pushing for not only resources, but for attention to that region, that he felt his court was under siege, given all the activity going around drugs and immigration enforcement. And an advocate, good family man, and admired by many, many people.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, he, himself, was under protection, his family. He was a conservative judge, but on the issue of immigration, he had stood up for immigrants and was seriously threatened.

REP. RAÚL GRIJALVA: Yeah. He was fair. And I think he also had some difficult cases that he was going to preside over relative to immigration and ethnic studies in the state. And I think, as a consequence of the profile cases and his rulings, which were consistent with law, he received those threats. And that’s just — that just adds another chapter to this whole sad and frightening aspect to our political life and our public life now in this community and, quite frankly, in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about how you’re feeling right now in terms of your own safety? I know this is an issue for Congress members across the country. A conference call yesterday with 800 people on it that —


AMY GOODMAN: — House Speaker Boehner presided over. But you, yourself, have been threatened — white powder, a white substance, sent to your office. Like Congressmember Giffords, your window was smashed — yours in Yuma, hers in Tucson. I earlier — I mentioned American Renaissance, a group that — it is not clear if there is a connection here. Clearly, Jared Loughner is an extremely disturbed young man. But what about this level of antagonism?

REP. RAÚL GRIJALVA: You have a cauldron that has been brewing and being stirred for close to a decade in Arizona that has to do with the issue — recently the issue of healthcare, but consistently around the issue of immigration and the border. And that has become polarizing, divisive. The rhetoric has been ugly and very, very disturbing and divisive and angry and hateful. And you mix all that together, and whether there is a linkage or not — and I hope myself that there is no linkage, that this is just a deranged young man that did a despicable act — but the fact remains that there’s a tone and a tenor that’s been set in our national dialogue that we cannot get away from. And I think that’s the reflection that each member of Congress, each governor and the leadership in our state better take very seriously, that it is — words have consequences, as Gabby said, and setting a tone, whether it is through the shock radio disc jockeys in Arizona and elsewhere, where they continue to promote a divisiveness and a hatred, and then you have people that are listening — and I’m not going to draw the linkage, but in frail minds and frail circumstances, where you have demonized people, where you have made a politician that disagrees with you not just your opponent, your deadly enemy, those things have consequences. You develop a toxic atmosphere like that, you — I think everybody needs to take a step back and realize that they have some shared responsibility. This is not about abridging free speech. This is not about the right to petition our government. This is not about the right to assemble. This is about responsibility. And as leaders, we lead by example. And the example has to be that we have introduced civility. And the debates should be healthy. They should be hard fought. But we don’t demonize, and we do not make people our enemies.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Grijalva, the Sarah Palin map, she’s now removed the map with the crosshairs on districts, including Gabby Giffords’ district, from her website and deleted the tweet where she said, “Don’t retreat–RELOAD!” Your response to that?

REP. RAÚL GRIJALVA: It’s about time. And I think if there’s any lesson that Ms. Palin needs to learn from this horrible tragedy, that we’re all learning and appreciating, is that as a leader that people look to, that people follow, that people believe, that her tone, her rhetoric and her positions, relative to other people that disagree with her, need to be looked at. And she has a tremendous responsibility, as all of us do, but particularly with the sharp rhetoric that she produces, to lead by example.

AMY GOODMAN: And Gabby Giffords saying to Congressmember Moran, “it’s really bad out there, particularly in a district like [hers],” she said, very much troubled that Sarah Palin had put her in the crosshairs. But also her opponent, the Tea Party-backed Jesse Kelly, who had this remarkable invite to a campaign rally, talking about targeting and ultimately saying — what was it that he said? I’m wondering, at the time, how this was dealt with. He said, “Get on Target for Victory in November. Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly.”

REP. RAÚL GRIJALVA: We commiserated after the election, and occasionally during the election, about the campaigns that we were going through — hers tougher than mine, but nevertheless very, very tough campaigns for both of us — and having to endure this for that whole period of time. But we need to be accessible. And I think that was Gabby’s point. She needed to do what she does in serving her district. And we all pray that she continues to do that. But yeah, the rhetoric was part and parcel of this last campaign, and the vilification of other people, the hatred. And they all — everybody bears a significant responsibility for the tone of politics in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Grijalva —

REP. RAÚL GRIJALVA: And more so the people that incite. Yes?

AMY GOODMAN: Gabby Giffords’ father, when he came to the hospital, said, “the whole Tea Party.” When he was asked whether his daughter had any enemies, he said, “Yes, the whole Tea Party.”

REP. RAÚL GRIJALVA: Yeah, I heard about that.

AMY GOODMAN: How has it come to this in Arizona?

REP. RAÚL GRIJALVA: I don’t know. I wish that answer was as simple as that. I said earlier that the division and the polarization is stark and deep. And we’ve got to dig ourselves out of this situation. It is — politics in Arizona have become one that is fueled by hate and one that is driven by anger. And for those of us that have the privilege of representing parts of that state, we realize that it’s like that. But it doesn’t have to be like that. And I think that’s the reflection and the responsibility we all have going back, and particularly our state leadership, who continues to feast on the anger and the hatred as a means of political gain. I think that is despicable, and people need to change their pattern.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Grijalva, our condolences on this horrid terror attack in your state, in our country.


AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Grijalva is a Democrat from Arizona, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

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