Excellent article in the Arizona Republic…..
Why Gabrielle Gabrielle Giffords shooting struck heart of nation
by Dan Nowicki – Jan. 25, 2011 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic
When a twisted gunman took aim at Rep. Gabrielle Giffords at a constituent event, he also was attacking the star-spangled tradition of the great American town-hall-style meeting.
That time-honored institution of American democracy, where constituents can passionately – but peaceably – give politicians a piece of their minds, also was a casualty of the Jan. 8 shooting rampage near Tucson that killed six and wounded Giffords and 12 others.
The violent assault on the nation’s collective democratic values, coupled with the compelling cast of characters, helped propel the drama from coast to coast and fuel the massive outpouring of grief and support.
“I think the whole country felt the loss,” said Sheri Bauman, a licensed psychologist who is an associate professor at the University of Arizona’s College of Education and director of its School Counseling Program. “People were glued to the news to see how she (Giffords) was doing, like she is family or a next-door neighbor. I’m old enough to remember the day Kennedy was shot, so I remember all of those sorts of events, and this really felt like that: mourning a national tragedy.”
Tonight, the heroes and victims of the killing spree will be in the spotlight again during President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Daniel Hernandez, an intern whose quick attention to Giffords on the scene is credited with helping to save her life, will sit with first lady Michelle Obama. Robert Gibbs, White House press secretary, confirmed Monday that Dr. Peter Rhee, one of Giffords’ Tucson physicians, and the family of Christina-Taylor Green, a 9-year-old girl killed in the massacre, also will sit in a box with the first lady.
Also expected is a display of bipartisanship inspired by the call for political civility that followed the Giffords shooting. Reps. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., have spearheaded an effort to encourage members of the Arizona delegation to sit together for Obama’s speech and save an empty seat to represent Giffords. A spokeswoman for Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., said he plans to sit next to Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., intends to sit with Sens. Tom Udall, D-N.M.; John Kerry, D-Mass.; and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., is the Senate GOP whip and part of the official bipartisan escort committee that will walk Obama into the House chamber.
The State of the Union presence is the latest example of how the shooting has transfixed the nation.
In the hours and days after the rampage outside a Safeway store, people all over the United States reacted with vigils, prayer services, heartfelt letters of condolence and other gestures honoring the victims.
Giffords, 40, a three-term Arizona Democrat, was shot in the head but is recovering. The dead included U.S. District Judge John Roll and Christina-Taylor, a member of her school’s student council who was born on Sept. 11, 2001.
Tens of thousands waited in line to attend a Jan. 12 memorial service in Tucson headlined by Obama. Several other prominent national figures also attended, including U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.
“Fundamentally, I think Americans were shocked that this basic function of democracy should be disrupted by a deranged individual,” said McCain, who relied heavily on town-hall meetings to win the 2008 Republican presidential nomination and, according to a tally by Congress.org, conducted 51 such sessions during his 2010 Senate re-election bid.
On the morning of the assassination attempt, Giffords was hosting a variation of the town-hall meeting that allowed constituents to line up for a chance to meet with her one on one.
“Gabby called it ‘Congress on Your Corner’ – just an updated version of government of and by and for the people,” Obama said to applause at the McKale Center event on the University of Arizona campus.
The political backdrop of the shooting spree by itself does not fully explain why America was so moved by the tragedy, but it is a major part of a story marked not only by the senselessness but also by the heroism of University Medical Center doctors and bystanders such as Hernandez.
Although deadly shooting sprees have happened before in the United States, this time, the carnage occurred in front of a grocery store on a Saturday morning, a time when many Americans do their shopping, often with their children. Grocery shopping, especially on the weekend, is almost a slice of Americana on its own. Paired with the gripping personal stories, the venue helped stoke the public’s emotions.
The biographies of Giffords and Christina-Taylor, as well as the husbands who protected their wives, also played a big role in eliciting an emotional response from the public, Bauman said.
Giffords was not a national household name before the shooting, but she was introduced to many Americans through subsequent news coverage as a likable “cowgirl” congresswoman who married an astronaut, Navy Capt. Mark Kelly, in a storybook wedding.
“Not only was she a congresswoman doing the meet-and-greet with the local folks, but she’s very personable, friendly, outgoing,” Bauman said. “It feels like a loss because there is a sense that she’s someone who everybody would have liked to know.”
Christina-Taylor, by all accounts a precocious, delightful student, went to the Giffords event because she wanted to learn more about civics. She was killed by a bullet to her chest. Her death hit many parents and children particularly hard.
Christina-Taylor also was a link between the Arizona shooting spree and the national trauma of Sept. 11, 2001. The National 9/11 Flag, a sacred relic that flew at the World Trade Center on the day it was destroyed and Christina-Taylor was born, was brought from New York for her funeral in Tucson.
“She becomes a real iconic kind of symbol,” Bauman said. Bruce Merrill, a veteran Arizona political scientist and pollster, attributes part of the national reaction to the “Congress on Your Corner” shooting to an acknowledgement that, after a particularly nasty and brutal election year, the hostility in politics may have gone too far.
Despite no evidence emerging to suggest that the gunman was motivated by conventional left-vs.-right politics or influenced by extreme rhetoric, Merrill said he has detected a “visceral” response in some quarters that suggests people are finally fed up with non-stop partisan bickering.
“I really do think that part of the outpouring was a way to say, ‘Look what this has resulted in,’ ” said Merrill, a professor emeritus at Arizona State University who also holds a master’s degree in counseling. “She (Giffords) was kind of everybody’s sister. She represented all the things that we think are good about democracy.”
National tragedies can bring changes in society. For example, flying commercially has never been the same since the Sept. 11 terrorist hijackings because of the increased security procedures and heightened awareness by passengers. The Giffords shooting already has started a national discussion about civility in political discourse that Obama is expected to continue tonight in his State of the Union address. Other impacts on the American psyche might be more subtle.
Six people murdered in a grocery-store parking lot could prompt some to rethink the Saturday-morning shopping routine or hesitate to take their children along, Bauman said.
“I suspect there are people who won’t want to go to Safeway, or that Safeway,” she said. “Because, suddenly, our world seems insecure.”
What long-term damage the shooter did to the political town-hall tradition also remains to be seen. Although some of Giffords’ rattled colleagues and friends expressed concerns in the aftermath of the rampage, freshman Rep. David Schweikert, R-Ariz., last week proceeded with “Congress Listening Sessions” in Tempe and Phoenix.
Most observers largely are skeptical that the Arizona rampage will have much effect on future in-person appearances by elected officials, although angry crowds had prompted some congressional members to make increasing use of telephone-town-hall technology even before the Giffords attack.
McCain and Kyl have conducted statewide telephone town halls that allowed up to 50,000 participants to listen to the senators answer questions and discuss issues from the safe confines of their homes.
Still, others noted that making stump speeches and shaking hands are too much a part of a politician’s DNA for them to stay in seclusion for long.
“I doubt if it’s going to keep politicians from appearing in public,” said William W. Phillips, an ASU emeritus professor who is an expert on U.S. political assassinations. “It might make many of them look more carefully at taking more safety measures. That might be an anticipated consequence of this.”
Merrill said he expected the long-term ramifications of the Giffords shooting to be minimal, predicting that Americans would resume their usual habits, including attending crowded political events and shopping on Saturdays.
“Americans have always been resilient about things like that,” he said.
McCain urged his Capitol Hill colleagues not to let the Giffords shooting dissuade them from conducting future town-hall meetings. Although the forums sometimes get raucous, people have the right to meet their elected representative on an equal footing and public officials have an obligation to face the voters, he said.
“When a plane crashes, you can’t stop flying airplanes,” McCain said. “As tragic as this was, you can’t let the crazies, the deranged people, drive the whole political agenda and disrupt it.”