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01.09.11

Gabrielle Giffords Shooting: Hatred Ravages AZ Over Immigration

As Rep. Gabrielle Giffords clings to life and her prognosis remains unclear, Terry Greene Sterling reports on the immigration wars, violence, and hate ravaging Arizona that put Giffords in danger.

• Despite false reports Giffords awoke after surgery late Saturday night, she is under heavy sedation and has not woken up.

• The alleged shooter, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner, is in custody and has been charged with five federal charges. A second suspect has been cleared of any involvement.

• Loughner’s long Internet trail includes disturbing YouTube videos and rambling missives on MySpace about the U.S. government and mind control. There is no clear motive for the attack.

The House of Representatives has postponed all activity scheduled for next week.

On Saturday, hours after a bullet ripped through the head of the Arizona congresswoman who narrowly survived a horrific Tucson shooting spree, Gov. Jan Brewer stood in front of the Capitol in Phoenix and announced that flags in the Grand Canyon State would fly at half staff to mourn “one of these horrible tragedies that we have to face.”

Arizona’s conservative Republican governor, who in 2010 signed a law that allowed most Arizonans to carry concealed weapons without permits, said she was “heartbroken” about the shootings and counted Democrat Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, as a friend “who did not play partisan politics.”

But Giffords, a savvy centrist whose storybook political career swept her from a family tire store manager to an Arizona House member to a state senator to a congresswoman in less than a decade, could be an irritant to Brewer, who spent decades toiling in Arizona Republican politics before advancing to governor.

Recently, for instance, Giffords called for Arizona to re-instate transplant funding for poor people, which Brewer had axed.

Giffords was shot during one of her famous town halls where she shined with one of her strongest talents – connecting with constituents. This particular meet-and-greet was held in front of a Safeway store in a middle-class section of northwest Tucson. Giffords was one of 19 people wounded when a gunman let loose with his semi-auto pistol. Six people died, including John Roll, a presiding federal judge whom I had interviewed and who had received death threats from anti-immigrant “patriots,” a well-liked longtime Giffords aide Gabe Zimmerman, and 9-year-old Christina Taylor-Green.

In the wake of the shooting, Arizonans, especially Latinos, blamed the tragedy on hate speech issuing from immigration battles and the 2010 elections. And on social media, those who knew of Giffords’ record puzzled over why a centrist Democrat known to be hawkish on border security and the military was targeted. During vigils and gatherings in Democrat-leaning Tucson and Republican-leaning Phoenix, many Arizonans called for peace in a state that’s been ravaged by immigration wars, violence, and hate.

Some who were given to fringe-pleasing divisive jargon themselves during their recent campaigns, like Brewer, who said most unauthorized immigrants were drug mules, or Sen. John McCain, who said “illegals” get into traffic accidents on purpose, were quick to condemn the shootings.

Although Giffords proudly owns a gun and publicly hooted at being in the Palin crosshairs, her friend W. Mark Clark says she was secretly deeply troubled by death threats she began receiving during the 2010 campaign.

“Whoever did this, for whatever their reason, they are a disgrace to Arizona,” McCain said Saturday.

Latinos, who say they have felt the brunt of Arizona hate speech for years, were more circumspect. “During tragic times like these, we should evaluate ourselves,” says DeeDee Blase, the head of a Latino Republican group in Arizona.

As if to underscore the civility point, dozens gathered in front of Giffords’ midtown office in Tucson in the late afternoon to flash peace signs and voice support for rational dialogue, but they were ushered to a safe distance by police because a suspicious metal container had been found on the premises. (Hours later, police said the container did not hold a bomb.)

Howard Kurtz: Don’t Blame Sarah Palin for Gabrielle Giffords’ ShootingGiffords is an attractive, slender native Arizonan whose enchanted life includes graduate studies at Cornell, a Fulbright scholarship and marriage to an astronaut. After serving in the Arizona legislature, she had been easily elected to Congress in 2006. But in 2009, she supported health-care reform and floated a public option.

“After hearing from thousands of my constituents on this topic over the past year, I am convinced that something must be done to hold insurance companies accountable, give Southern Arizonans greater health-care choices and bring down medical costs,” she said at the time.

Her support of health-care reform didn’t sit well in her conservative district, where it is known as “Obamacare.” She walked an increasingly risky political tightrope in her sprawling southeastern Arizona district that includes a voter roster made up of employees of military bases, Minutemen, retirees, borderland townsfolk, meth dealers, Tucson suburbanites and cattle ranchers.

In April, after her conservative constituent Robert Krentz was gunned down on his ranch near the border, Giffords quietly attended his funeral and then ramped up her advocacy for tighter border security. After the passage of SB 1070, Arizona’s notorious immigration law that makes it a state crime for unauthorized immigrants to set foot in Arizona, Giffords outraged liberals and Latinos by rationalizing the law as Arizona’s cry for help in the face of federal inaction.

Her conservative side called for the National Guard to police the border, but her liberal side supported comprehensive immigration reform.

In Congress she pushed for military research and solar energy research and organized a U.S.-Mexico drug battle plan to wipe out cartels and border violence. She’s got a graduate degree in planning, and her efficiency and energy are legend. There’s talk that she might run for senator one day, and this, along with her health-care views, have made her the target of the far right.

The online white nationalist zine, V-Dare (named after Virgina Dare, the first white child born in America) accused her of hypocrisy and “treason” for her political views. Sarah Palin famously put Giffords' district on her website crosshairs, although the post has been removed and Palin sent Giffords thoughts and prayers.

Although Giffords proudly owns a gun and publicly hooted at being in the Palin crosshairs, Giffords’ friend W. Mark Clark says she was secretly deeply troubled by death threats she began receiving during the 2010 campaign against businessman Jesse Kelly, who was supported by immigration hardliners Arizona Sen. Russell Pearce, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and former congressman Tom Tancredo.

Kelly used “inexcusable” military references during the 2010 race, says Clark, who owns a Tucson behavioral health facility and has volunteered on both of Giffords’ congressional campaigns. The Kelly campaign hate speech, says Clark, was funded by “so-called respectable businessmen” who should be ashamed of themselves.

Kelly was not available for comment, but his website called the shooting a “stunning tragedy” and noted that “senseless acts of violence have no place in American politics.”

During the race against Kelly, Giffords’ office was vandalized and one “patriot” dropped his gun on the floor as Giffords spoke at a pubic meeting.

The death threat phenomenon was not confined to Giffords. Reporters who cover immigration, and judges, like John Roll, who adjudicate immigration, get death theats. But politicians probably get the most. Democrat and former congressman Harry Mitchell told The Arizona Republic he stopped going out in public to meet candidates and began holding electronic town halls after receiving death threats.

And the haters have video cameras. On Saturday night, a Tucson website posted a video of crackpot hatemonger Fred Phelps, who said Giffords was shot for her sins and the person who shot her was a hero.

Giffords’ friend, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, who presides over a multi-agency investigation of the shooting, wouldn’t name the one suspect who was tackled at the shooting scene and taken into custody. But the sheriff described the suspect as a 22-year-old, mentally unstable man with previous brushes with the law. (This suspect was widely reported to be Jared Loughner, a 22-year-old Tucson man possibly connected to weird YouTube postings.) There may be another suspect who has yet to be caught, Dupnik said.

The sheriff, who took plenty of vitriol for opposing Arizona’s harsh immigration law, all but blamed the shootings on “vitriol” leveled against Giffords during the 2010 election.

“People poo-poo vitriol,” he said, but it is “not without consequences.” Arizona has become a “Mecca for prejudice and bigotry,” he said.

Giffords’ prognosis is unclear–a Tucson surgeon familiar with her case voiced optimism about her recovery but another doctor, a family friend who saw her scans, warned at a press conference that Giffords’ path ahead could be rocky, complications were possible, more surgery might be needed.

In Tucson, in the wake of the shootings, residents contacted family members and friends to make sure they were safe. Then many, like longtime Tucson orthodontist Dell Kyger, 43, sat at home trying figure out why anyone would want to hurt Gabrielle Giffords, of all people.

“She wasn’t a polarizing figure,” he says.

“But it was a polarizing election.”

Due to an editor's error, an earlier version of this story stated that Giffords awoke on Saturday night, citing a report from Politico.com. Politico retracted the statement on Sunday morning. Giffords remains in a medically-induced coma.

Sara McCauley assisted with reporting for this story.

Terry Greene Sterling is an Arizona journalist who blogs about immigration in Phoenix at terrygreenesterling.com. Her book, ILLEGAL, Life and Death in Arizona's Immigration War Zone, was published July 1 by the Globe Pequot Press.