In 2006, while my family was living abroad, I was involved with a group of politically minded Americans who were interested in the potential Republican-to-Democratic change in Congress in the 2006 mid-term elections. Knowing my background in politics, they asked me, "What can we do from afar?"
I advised that we should raise money for a House candidate whose victory was uncertain, but was key to winning the majority in the House. We picked Gabrielle Giffords: 35 years old, brilliant, charismatic, a businesswoman. She was also a third-generation Arizonan with deep roots in the state. She was a bilingual, motorcycle-riding, gun-rights supporter who just happened to be dating an astronaut. She was, in our view, what rising stars look like.
We had a fundraiser for her in my apartment and raised $5,000 — not a huge sum, but it was unexpected by the campaign, and as any political operative knows, an unexpected $5,000 is appreciated and remembered. Giffords called our party to give her thanks, and she charmed everyone with her wit and intellect, which was in evidence even over a Skype connection.
Although running in a conservative district, she won that year, and the House came under Democratic control. Giffords won again in 2008, and she went on to support President Obama's key legislative priorities — including health care reform — despite the vocal opponents in her district and the subsequent vandalism to her district office last year. When asked if she was afraid, she said, "no” before warning that the rhetoric being deployed in the name of political discourse could have “consequences.” No kidding.
This election season, Giffords had to wait a week for the result, as her race was close. Her opponent was a "Tea Party" candidate who came very close to beating her. I talked with her at length in November at a gathering of Blue Dog Democrats, whose ranks had just been reduced by half. She was, as usual, warm, open, eager to get back to work, and anticipating spending time with her family over the holidays. She was headed to the Vatican.
The excellent work of first responders, brilliant doctors and the prayers of millions will hopefully save her life after the assassination attempt this weekend in Tucson. The last time a member of the U.S. Congress was assassinated on American soil was Sen. Robert Kennedy in 1968, when he was a candidate for president. Members of Congress lose elections, are driven from office by scandal, and they die in plane crashes. But they are rarely assassinated. The events of this weekend in Tucson have punctured the veil of safety assumed by most members of Congress. Only in countries where the rule of law is still a shadowy goal are assassinations of public officials accepted as a presumed risk.
Yes, one deranged individual shot Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, killing innocent civilians and wounding many others. But we should be very skeptical of the push-back from conservative media voices that emphasize the "lone gunman" storyline. Conservative talk radio, Fox News and Sarah Palin's completely irresponsible targeting of races last election cycle — complete with visual "crosshairs" through a rifle scope — is the environment where unstable people are encouraged. Those “news sources” and political “leaders” are provocative and entertaining to some. But they provide aid and comfort to others, like the mentally ill man who snuffed out the lives of fellow Americans in a Safeway parking lot on Saturday.
Overheated political rhetoric does indeed have consequences. Our nation lost an esteemed federal judge, a congressional aide, a 9-year-old girl who just wanted to meet her congresswoman, and other ordinary Americans who were going about their day. And while we wait and pray on news of Gabby Giffords — a brilliant woman, wife, stepmother, friend and dedicated public servant — I wonder: Will the volume and the nature of modern political discourse change? How many other rising stars have to be extinguished before the rhetoric and the vitriol is condemned rather than rewarded?
We are Americans. We are better than this. It would be wrong to blame all conservatives for the actions of one crazy guy. Liberals have plenty of irresponsible voices of their own. But it would also be wrong to stand by and allow dangerous rhetoric to define our political culture. Rising stars don’t come around that often.