Press wait near the office of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in the Longworth… (Brendan Smialowski, Getty…)
Reporting from Washington — Law enforcement officials had only begun their examination of a Tucson supermarket scene where Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 17 others were shot Saturday when many on the political left settled on a culprit: overheated political rhetoric.
Even before the name of the shooter was known, a fierce debate spilled out across blogs and social media, with liberal commentators blaming the attack on the violent imagery evoked by some "tea party" candidates and conservatives during the recent midterm elections.
They noted that Giffords' tea party-backed opponent, Jesse Kelly, held a fundraiser at a shooting range in which he invited supporters to "help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office" by shooting an M-16 rifle with him. They pointed to an online map Sarah Palin posted during the midterm election that used cross hairs to mark each congressional Democrat she wanted to defeat, along with her frequent use of shooting metaphors on the campaign trail.
"You cannot flippantly talk about 'reloading' and putting people on your TARGET list and not expect some nut to take you literally," read one typical comment posted to Palin's Facebook page Saturday. "This is on you partially whether you like it or not."
"Leave it to the liberals to expect one person to be held accountable for the individual actions of every person who hears them," shot back another. "It's representative of the liberal nanny state dream come true!"
In a post on her Facebook page, Palin did not address the past language she has used, but offered her condolences to the victims. "On behalf of Todd and my family, we all pray for the victims and their families, and for peace and justice," she wrote.
"I've been reading the instant reaction on Twitter and on the Web and I've been trying to filter out the urge to vent my rage at those who immediately shoe-horned these awful crimes into their ideological prism," Jonah Goldberg wrote on the website of the National Review. "There have been some truly disgusting displays of opportunism out there."
The attack in Tucson punctuated what has been a particularly brutish season in American politics, especially the uproar over the passage of the healthcare overhaul last year.
Last March, after Giffords voted for the bill, the glass door of her Tucson congressional office was smashed in the middle of the night.
"The rhetoric is incredibly heated — not just the calls, but the e-mails, the slurs," Giffords said on MSNBC a few days later. "Things have really got spun up."
Thomas Hollihan, who teaches classes on political rhetoric at USC, said people on the political fringe "get affected by a kind of toxic political culture that makes them angry and paranoid that their government is being taken away."
But he cautioned against coming to any conclusions about the motivations of the shooter in Tucson. "People who commit crimes like this are often just unhinged," he said.
Indeed, the information that trickled out Saturday about the man arrested for the shooting, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner, did not suggest he had a clear political motivation.
Still, Saturday's shooting set off an eruption of anger at the tea party, Arizona's permissive gun laws and conservative media pundits.
"There's an aura of hate, and elected politicians feed it; certain people on Fox News feed it," Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., a Democrat from New Jersey, told the Record newspaper in Bergen.
Former Democratic Sen. Gary Hart said inflammatory speech — such as references to political opponents as "enemies" that need to be "eliminated" — leads to the kind of violence that occurred in Tucson.
"We all know that there are unstable and potentially dangerous people among us," he wrote on the Huffington Post. "To repeatedly appeal to their basest instincts is to invite and welcome their predictable violence."
When asked by the New York Post whether his daughter had any enemies, Giffords' father, through tears, responded: "Yeah, the whole tea party."
By Saturday evening, tea party leaders had taken pains to distance themselves from the attack.
"Spirited debate is desirable in our country, but it only should be the clash of ideas," Amy Kremer, chairwoman of the Sacramento-based Tea Party Express, said in a statement. "An attack on anyone for political purposes, if that was a factor in this shooting, is an attack on the democratic process. We join with everyone in vociferously condemning it."
Staff writers Kathleen Hennessey and Michael A. Memoli in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.