This week Congress was supposed to begin with a combative spirit, following the Republican Party leadership's promise to vote for the repeal of the Democrats’ healthcare bill. But this morning, it was almost surreally quiet at the Capitol.
Flags were flown at half-staff following the shooting in Arizona. At the side entrance to the building, while my bag went through the scanner, two female security guards were discussing the shooting. “And the 9-year-old girl, did you see her picture? Such a beautiful child. Born on 9/11”. “Such a tragedy," sighed another.
Representative Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head during a public event in which she was not guarded. But on Tuesday, two guards were standing in front of her Washington D.C. office door in the Longworth office building, and they asked visitors not to tarry there.
At 11 A.M. on Tuesday, hundreds of staffers stood at the East stairs of the Capitol for a moment of silence to commemorate the victims of the shooting, among them Gabe Zimmerman, head of the Rep. Giffords regional office in Arizona.
In the last ten years, according to the FBI, congressmen have received over 230 threats – the latest complaint was filed as recently as this past weekend. But despite calls for increased protection of public servants, some congressmen admitted that the suggestion is unrealistic.
“I have been an elected official for more than twenty years, as a mayor, as an elected judge, and as a congressman, and unfortunately I have received death threats on occasion throughout my entire career,” Rep. Steve Rothman (D-NJ) told Haaretz.
“It is something I take seriously, but I don’t let it stand in the way of me doing my job, which is to be out and among the people I represent, hearing their problems and complaints, and sharing with them my perspectives on the events and issues of the day.
"I have held many, many town hall meetings over the years, and usually the local police chief assigns one or more police officers to be at the event, but most of the events I participate in in my district do not have police protection. It’s simply a fact of life.
"This week in Washington, Speaker Boehner and Minority Leader Pelosi are calling all the Democrats and Republicans to meet with various law enforcement experts, to discuss how best to protect our staff and ourselves. I will listen carefully to all those experts, but do not want to cost the taxpayers any unnecessary expense, and I do not wish to place myself in a cocoon.”
Rothman is cautious not to join in the blame game triggered by the shooting that has placed responsibility for the attacks on incitement by the political right-wing.
“Law enforcement agencies are now examining every aspect of this young madman’s life to determine what might have caused him to murder all these people, and try to assassinate congresswoman Giffords. Until they complete their thorough investigation, I will not attribute his evil deeds to anything other than his own madness.”
Do you expect this incident to have a profound effect on the political discourse? Will the Republican Party rethink their combative strategy for this session of congress?
“The U.S., like Israel, is a genuine democracy, with often loud and vigorous debate and disagreements. I don’t expect that to change, but I hope that everyone will be even more careful with their language.
"My thoughts at this time are with my friend Gabby, hoping and praying for her complete recovery, as well as praying for the families of those who were killed and those who were wounded and are struggling [to recover].”
A moment of silence was held at the same hour at the White House.
President Obama and his wife, joined by about two hundred staffers, stood, with their heads down, on the South Lawn, and left without any words being said.
“I hope this incident will help us to improve the political discourse in our country that became troublesome,” said Tony Fischer from South Carolina. “I hope people will be more considerate.”
Along with the testimony of his former classmates about the erratic behavior that made some of them scared that he might one day bring a weapon to class, the conservative camp and Sarah Palin’s adviser denied any responsibility for providing motivation for the alleged attacker, Jared Loughner.
It’s unclear how profound the consequences of the tragic events in Arizona will be for U.S. politics – but this week, both camps are being very careful not to make any false steps.
Obviously, Obama doesn’t want to appear as someone who exploits the tragedy for political gain, and Republicans don’t want to provide any ammunition to support the claims of critics that the polarization of the political debate encouraged the deranged individual to pull the trigger.
But Obama has a full agenda, and there is some indication that starting next week, Washington will start sliding back into politics as usual.
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