Jan. 10, 2011 -- Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin remained a focus of the debate about the tone of the country's political discourse in the wake of Saturday's killing rampage in Arizona that left six dead and 14 others wounded.
Palin's decision to use a "target list" with images of cross hairs in her effort to defeat Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and other Democratic lawmakers in the 2010 election cycle has been mentioned often -- not so much to suggest that it motivated the shooter, but rather, that it contributed to a vitriolic political climate in America.
Less than 24-hours before she was critically wounded by a lone gunman at an event in her Arizona Congressional district, Giffords, a Democrat, wrote an e-mail message to Kentucky's Republican Secretary of State Trey Grayson expressing her desire find ways to "tone our rhetoric and partisanship down."
"I would love to talk about what we can do to promote centrism and moderation," Giffords wrote, according to the message, which was first reported by Kentucky news Web site, cn|2 Politics.
She continued, "I am one of only 12 Dems left in a GOP district (the only woman) and think that we need to figure out how to tone our rhetoric and partisanship down." (The congresswoman sent the message on Friday to congratulate Grayson on his recent appointment as director of Harvard University's Insititue of Politics.)
Some of Giffords' colleagues on Capitol Hill and elsewhere in Washington echoed that call in interviews and statements since Saturday's incident.
"Violent tendencies have been inflamed by the careless and irresponsible rhetoric of certain political leaders," Justin Ruben, the executive director of the liberal advocacy group, Move On, wrote in an e-mail message to supporters on Sunday in which he cited Palin specifically.
Rep. Robert Brady, D-Pa., announced this weekend that he planned to introduce legislation that would make it a federal crime for someone to use language or imagery that might be construed as threatening violence against members of Congress or federal officials.
"The rhetoric is just ramped up so negatively, so high that we have got to shut this down," Brady said in an interview on CNN, adding: "This is not a wake-up call, this is major alarms going off."
Other lawmakers also lashed out at an overheated political climate, arguing, like Brady, that it has helped create an environment ripe for the shooting.
"We're living in a time that all of us should begin to take stock of how our words affect people," Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., said on "Fox News Sunday", "especially those who aren't very stable."
House Democratic Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., acknowledged that his colleagues on Capitol Hill "are very concerned about the environment in which they are now operating."
How Angry is Too Angry?
"It's been a much angrier, confrontational environment over the last two or three years than we have experienced in the past," Hoyer said on CBS's "Face the Nation." "I think there is worry about that."
Giffords was one of several members of Congress who reported threats or vandalism in 2010 spurred by apparent anger over the passage of health care reform. Arizonans like Giffords also have been contending with a pitched debate over the passage of one of the country's toughest and most controversial immigration laws.
Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik pointed the finger of blame this weekend, at least in part, on the incendiary political rhetoric that he complained had become all too common.
"When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government -- the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous," Dupnik said at a news conference Saturday night. "And unfortunately, Arizona, I think, has become the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry."
Dupnik added, "That may be free speech, but it's not without consequences."
Authorities continue to investigate the background of the suspect, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner, whose anti-government ramblings and notes with the words "I planned ahead," "My assassination," and "Giffords," which law enforcement officials said they found scrawled on an envelope left in a safe in his house, offer clues about his motivation and mental state.
The United States Attorney in Arizona on Sunday filed three charges for the attempted murder of Giffords and two members of her staff, and two charges of murdering federal employees.
Sheriff Dupnik's remarks on Saturday eerily echo comments that Giffords, herself, made months ago, noting her presence on the Palin target list.
"We are on Sarah Palin's targeted list," Giffords said in an interview on MSNBC. "The way that she has it depicted has the cross hairs of the gun site over our district. When people do that, they have got to realize there are consequences to that action."
Rhetoric and Imagery Long a Part of Politics
A member of Palin's political team, Rebecca Mansour, told conservative commentator Tammy Bruce, "We never imagined, it never occurred to us that anybody would consider it violent," referring to the list. Palin posted a note of condolence on her Facebook page shortly after Saturday's shooting.
In a post Sunday morning on his blog Red State, conservative commentator Erick Erickson criticized those who have been "subtly and not so subtly pinning the blame for the attempted assassination of the Congresswoman and the related shootings on the tea party movement, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, me, you, and everyone right of center," calling such a suggestion, "not just media malpractice, but a lie."
Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, also took issue with the notion that Loughner's actions had anything to do with the political climate that has recently been shaped in no small part by vocal members of groups like hers.
"I don't see how expressing your anger and frustration with government in a peaceful manner can be blamed for lone actions of one mentally disturbed person," Martin told ABC News. "Expressing your frustration and asking your elected officials to represent you the way you want to be represented is a far cry from violence."
Martin and a slew of political observers on both the left and right pointed out that militaristic rhetoric and imagery have long been a part of politics. They also noted that Democratic campaign committees also deployed their own "target" lists of Republican districts in 2010 that were not entirely dissimilar from Palin's.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., agreed on Sunday that as a nation "we ought to cool it, tone it down" and "even on difficult issues like immigration, or taxes or the health care law, do our best not to inflame passions."
But in an appearance on CNN's "State of the Union" he also cautioned against exaggerating the degree to which sharp-tongued political rhetoric contributed to the Arizona incident.
"Of course we want civility instead of incivility, and of course we don't want violence. But I think in all of the talk about this we have to be very careful about imputing the motives or the actions of a deranged individual to any particular group of Americans who have their own political beliefs," Alexander said. "I mean, what we know about this individual, for example, is that he was reading Karl Marx, and reading Hitler and burning the American flag."
But after an election cycle in which Nevada's GOP Senate candidate, Sharron Angle, spoke about "second amendment remedies" for defeating her opponent and others brandished weapons in their own campaign ads, including West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin, who used the climate change bill for target practice, as well as many more who simply channeled anti-government rage, the outcry is perhaps not surprising.
In the group's e-mail message, Move On also circulated a petition to its members calling on lawmakers in Washington and well as television and cable news networks "to put an end to the hateful rhetoric and all overt or implied appeals to violence."
"We must put an end to the rhetoric of violence and hate that has exploded in America over the past two years," Ruben wrote.