Hawaii’s politics sank to a new low of hostility in last year’s election campaign, but it was more genteel than many campaigns across the county and paled to the political invective that has been rampant on the Internet. Sadly, it was both shocking, yet not surprising, that a man with a past of bizarre behavior engaged in the heinous gun spree in Tucson, Ariz.
Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ "Congress on Your Corner" gatherings have been similar to the Hawaii delegations’ "talk story" sessions aimed at hearing and responding to constituents’ questions and concerns. The rampage in Tucson spotlights the unspeakable hazards that lurk behind such routine gatherings — but these sessions are crucial to a democracy and this tragedy should not alter spirited debate on issues in Hawaii or elsewhere in the nation. It does, though, throw the spotlight on the increasingly angry tone across America, and this crime’s political venue serves as a cautionary reminder against any irresponsible, demonizing rhetoric that incites the dangerous zealots to violence.
It’s still unclear what the Tucson suspect’s political leanings are — if indeed he has any. Jared Lee Loughner, described by Tucson’s Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik as "a typical troubled individual who’s a loner," was wrestled to the ground by stalwart bystanders after his shots killed six, including federal Judge John Roll, and wounded Giffords, Loughner’s main target, and 12 others.
Giffords, a member of the Democratic centrist Blue Dog Caucus, has been an outspoken critic of Arizona’s tough immigration law and was criticized in her normally Republican district for voting in favor of the health care law. She won her third term last November by less than 1 percent in one of 20 heated congressional districts.
The harsh words used in Hawaii’s 2010 congressional and gubernatorial campaigns were strong but not invective. Fortunately, candidates learned from opinion surveys that island voters react negatively to such campaigning.
"There’s no room in our country for this kind of unspeakable violence," U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa of Hawaii said of the Arizona shooting. The same should hold true for any political strategy intended to create anger that pushes people over the edge, including those who, like Loughner, appear to be mentally ill.
Sheriff Dupnik calls Arizona "the Tombstone of the United States," a reference to the town in Giffords’ district where street shooting scenes are staged for tourists. Indeed, not only is Arizona divided emotionally on the immigration issue, it is one of only three states where it is legal to carry loaded guns without a concealed weapons permit.
The 9 mm semi-automatic Glock pistol used by Loughner with two 30-round magazines was purchased in a Tucson gun shop and was the same setup used by Cho Seung-Hui in the 2007 shooting rampage that killed 32 people at Virginia Tech. Hawaii, with one of the nation’s toughest gun laws, should maintain its capacity limit of ammunition clips to 10 rounds.
That, along with a relatively cordial political atmosphere, does not assure that Hawaii is immune from such an outburst. Residents are subjected incessantly to the political anger of TV cable news and radio talk shows and to online chatter that falls off the deep end. The tragic Tucson shooting should heighten the importance of civility in the political arena.