With Giffords Shooting, a Grim Milestone

The attack raises questions about politics and the country

The shooting of Gabrielle Giffords raises any number of questions: What is happening to our country? What has happened to our politics? Who would do such a thing?

It is an incredibly ugly moment in American life, a reminder that politicians, like citizens, can find themselves at the dangerous end of a gun.  From Alexander Hamilton and Abraham Lincoln to John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, bullets have pierced our leaders, revealing them to be as mortal as the rest of us.

Assassination in America has been a male affair and one that goes back through our history. Four American presidents have been felled by bullets--James Garfield, William McKinley, Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. Men have been the targets and most of the shooters, although two different women tried to kill President Gerald Ford.

The last congressman to be assassinated was Leo Ryan, the San Francisco Democrat who had traveled to Guyana to investigate the Jim Jones cult that dozens of his constituents had joined. Before Ryan, Robert F. Kennedy, then a Senator from New York, was gunned down in a Los Angeles hotel ballroom.

The shooting of Giffords--a mother (her husband had children by a previous marriage), a young woman of 40, the wife of an astronaut and the in-law of another who is currently in space--is horrible by any measure. It is the first time a female elected federal officeholder has been shot. It's a reminder that female politicians are no more protected than female cops or firefighters, soldiers or corrections officers. And yet the first time we hear about a mother killed in the line of duty or a female POW, it curdles the stomach, not because of paternalism but because it marks a new barrier of decency that's been broken.

Threats to female politicians have become common in popular culture. In its last season, the Fox television drama "24" focused on a female president who faced constant threats on her life. In the 1995 film, Nick of Time, the character played by Johnny Depp is forced to try and assassinate a female governor of California. But neither of those women was killed. They were moments of fiction. Now they're real. We live in a country that's more like Indira Gandhi's India or Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan than we had thought.

Each of these moments causes a different reaction. Bobby Kennedy's shooting led to federal gun control laws. The insanity ruling of the Reagan jury led to debate about the insanity defense. After the Oklahoma City bombing there was a national moment of reflection about our politics. Bill Clinton said he'd never again use the word bureaucrat pejoratively, and Rush Limbaugh bristled at the charge that his conservative talk show had inspired the monsters who had slaughtered so many women and children. 

We have no idea what motivated the shooter and whether it had anything to do with politics. Even if the shooter thought he had a political motive, it's not clear what that would mean. So what if one sick person twisted the words of a mainstream politician? Jodie Foster wasn't to blame for the crazed mind of John Hinkley, who shot President Reagan in an attempt to impress the actress. Ironically, Giffords had been a fierce advocate for the mentally ill.

We'll know more soon. What we know now is that our country is more like Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan than we thought when we got up this morning. 

Thumbnail image credit: uscgpress/Flickr