It was the one of the worst days of Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik's life.
A good friend, federal Judge John Roll, had been shot to death. Another friend, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, was fighting for her life after being shot in the head. Five more were dead, including 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green, following a morning shooting rampage in a Safeway parking lot.
And so, as a Jan. 8 press briefing was wrapping up, the 75-year-old lawman said what was really on his mind.
"I hope that all Americans are as saddened and shocked as we are," Dupnik said. "And I hope that some of them are as angry as I am and as a lot of us are. And I think it's time as a country that we need to do a little soul-searching, because I think the vitriolic rhetoric that that we hear, day in and day out, from people in the radio business and some people in the TV business, and what we see on TV and how our youngsters are being raised, that this has not become the nice United States of America that most of us grew up in."
Dupnik, who has been sheriff of Pima County for three decades and a cop in these parts for more than a half-century, has had plenty to say in the wake of the shooting. He has laid into political figures and media personalities who push "rhetoric about hatred, about mistrust of government, about paranoia of how government operates, and to try to inflame the public on a daily basis, 24 hours a day, seven days a week." He proclaimed that it "has impact on people, especially who are unbalanced personalities to begin with."
Reaction has been explosive. Local morning radio talk-show firebrand Jon Justice—although he was not named by Dupnik—fired off a letter demanding that Dupnik "step down immediately" for politicizing the shooting. U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl declared that Dupnik's comments were inappropriate for a law-enforcement briefing and amounted to "speculation." The crew at Fox News, ranging from Bill O'Reilly to Glenn Beck, accused him of stirring up trouble and harming the country. A Salt Lake City anti-amnesty activist has announced plans to attempt to recall Dupnik. And the Pima County Tea Party Patriots organization plans to gather for a protest against Dupnik this Friday, Jan. 28, in front of the sheriff's Benson Highway headquarters.
But he also has his share of supporters, who agree that the language of politics has become too corrosive. Congressman Raúl Grijalva declared that Dupnik has become a "folk hero." Former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw praised him for speaking out, saying "too few others have, because they're worried about retribution." And a Facebook group, Clarence Dupnik Is My Hero, has gathered close to 10,000 supporters.
Knowing what we know now, it's hard to make an argument that Jared Lee Loughner—the 22-year-old man who is now in federal custody and facing charges for attempting to kill Giffords and two more of her aides, with additional charges of killing Roll and Giffords' aide Gabe Zimmerman expected to be filed soon—was driven by any rational political agenda.
Loughner reportedly invoked his Miranda rights and refused to talk to authorities after he was taken into custody in the wake of the shooting. His defense team has not yet raised competency issues in court, but his online presence demonstrates a deranged preoccupation with currency, grammar and "conscience dreaming." Pima Community College officials told Loughner he was banned from the campus until he got a mental-health evaluation proving he "does not present a danger to himself or others" after they reviewed a chilling video that Loughner recorded as he walked around campus and rambled about injustices, including a reference to "genocide in America."
But even if Loughner was not driven by any legitimate political gripe, his shooting spree has launched a discussion about political discourse on the campaign trail, in the halls of government and in the media.
President Barack Obama, in his speech two weeks ago on the UA campus, called for any debate in the wake of the shootings to be "worthy of those we have lost."
"And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let's remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy, but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud," Obama said.
However, the call for greater civility has its share of critics, ranging from Rush Limbaugh (who called civility tantamount to liberals attempting to "shut us up" and impose "censorship") to Jack Shafer of Slate.com, who rose up in defense of fiery political speech.
"Our spirited political discourse, complete with name-calling, vilification—and, yes, violent imagery—is a good thing," Shafer wrote. "Better that angry people unload their fury in public than let it fester and turn septic in private. The wicked direction the American debate often takes is not a sign of danger but of freedom. And I'll punch out the lights of anybody who tries to take it away from me."
Andrew Sullivan of The Atlantic's Daily Dish blog countered Shafer: "I don't disagree with the sentiment that we should not refrain from robust or colorful or exuberant rhetoric. But constant resort to violent imagery directed at specific and named human targets is not a sign of a lively discourse but of thuggishness. Metaphorically threatening specific people with violence, especially when condoned by established leaders of political parties (like a former vice-presidential candidate), takes rhetoric to a new level. No one is proposing any bans on speech. We are arguing that at this point in time, the rhetoric has become so inflamed and so martial and so violent that the very viability of a respectable, peaceful right is on the table."
David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter who has been critical of the Tea Party movement, suggested that the shooting should be cause for politicians to reconsider their language: "This crime should summon us to a quiet collective resolution to cease this kind of talk and to cease to indulge those who engage in it."
Did the 2010 race in Congressional District 8 lack civility? The answer you'll get depends on who you ask.
Giffords' husband, NASA astronaut and Navy Capt. Mark Kelly, said in an interview last week that he didn't like the campaign's atmosphere.
"People should be able to disagree without getting nasty about it," Mark Kelly said. "And in her last campaign, there was a lot of heated discussion that certainly, in my opinion, may have crossed the line."
Mark Kelly added that the level of anger on the campaign trail had grown so intense that Giffords feared she would be shot.
"She would say, 'I'm a little bit concerned that at some point, someone will shoot me,'" Mark Kelly said. "We talked about it at least a dozen times. We talked about it two weeks ago."
It's not surprising to hear that Giffords felt threatened in the current political climate. Last year, during the contentious health-care debate, a glass door at her midtown office was shattered. Town halls were crowded and rowdy affairs; at one gathering, a gun fell out of an audience member's pocket. Most famously, Sarah Palin put Giffords' district in crosshairs on a map of 20 districts that she was "targeting" for a GOP takeover—an image Giffords herself objected to in an interview on MSNBC.
"The way that she has it depicted has the crosshairs of a gunsight over our district," Giffords said last March. "When people do that, they've got to realize there are consequences to that action."
That map—and Giffords' comments—brought Palin squarely into the story in the days after the shooting rampage. On Jan. 12, the same day that Obama made his Tucson address to the nation, Palin released a taped statement saying that she believed that rhetoric was not to blame: "Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own. They begin and end with the criminals who commit them."
Palin followed that up with a complaint that members of the media were whipping up hysteria that could push people into behaving violently.
"Especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence that they purport to condemn," said Palin, setting off another debate about her use of the term "blood libel," which has historically been associated with lies that were told to whip up hatred against Jews. (Giffords herself is Jewish.)
Palin had actually addressed the question of the crosshairs as far back as March of last year, when she stumped for Sen. John McCain's re-election campaign in Arizona. During an appearance at the Pima County Fairgrounds, Palin said criticism about a tweeted comment about her map—"Don't Retreat, Instead—RELOAD!"—amounted to a "ginned-up" controversy by her enemies in the media.
"We know violence isn't the answer," Palin said. "When we take up our arms, we're talking about our vote."
Guns were not a major issue in the 2010 campaign in Congressional District 8, partly because Giffords herself generally supports Second Amendment rights and owns a Glock 9 mm pistol. And she wasn't above posing with an automatic weapon while touring an overseas U.S. military base.
Giffords' Republican opponent, Jesse Kelly, used a photo from his combat days as a Marine in Iraq that showed him cradling an M-16 in his lap with the tagline: "Does this look like a RINO?" At one gun-range fundraiser, contributors were given a chance to fire a fully automatic M-16 and "help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office."
Jesse Kelly, who cancelled a Jan. 15 event where he was slated to announce his next step in politics, has not given any interviews since the shooting.
But his campaign spokesman, John Ellinwood, says that "historically, 2010 does not stand out" as a particularly uncivil year.
Ellinwood points out that both Republicans and Democrats have traditionally used martial imagery in their campaigns. He recalls that Democrat Harry Mitchell, who lost a bid for re-election to Congress last year, put Republican J.D. Hayworth's image in a rifle scope in 2006.
"That stands out to me," Ellinwood says.
Ellinwood says he doesn't know if a future Kelly campaign would advertise a fundraiser at a shooting range that would include a chance to fire an M-16.
"I can't really speculate on what we'd do in the future," he says.
Jesse Kelly did take a few personal shots at Giffords, such as when he falsely accused her of bankrupting a family business and not paying her Social Security taxes, but for the most part, the campaign kept its primary focus on issues like border security, health-care reform and federal spending.
However, a group of local Republican businessmen hammered Giffords on other fronts.
The Conservatives for Congress Committee put out ads claiming that Giffords was involved in an unseemly lease deal with the city of Tucson and accused Giffords of secretly living in Houston instead of Tucson. In one swipe, they said that Giffords' husband, Mark Kelly, "won't be voting for her." (Kelly is a registered voter at his home in League City, Texas.)
Steve Christy, the onetime Chrysler dealer who chaired the Conservatives for Congress campaign, says the questions about Giffords' connection to the community were fair game.
"I wouldn't take them back," Christy says. "I think they were legitimate concerns and issues that we raised that needed to be examined and that needed to be discussed."
Christy, who says he wants to see Giffords make a strong recovery, disagrees with the notion that last year's campaign lacked civility.
"I don't particularly think that there's been anything that's been terribly uncivil about the campaigns," Christy says. "I believe they've been passionate, and I believe they've been full of conviction and determination on both sides. Yeah, things do get heated, and yes, things get pretty loud and raucous, but to me, that's ... what makes this country great: That you can get behind a candidate (and) conduct a robust campaign for someone and against someone."
Christy, who is not ruling out his own future run for Congress, worries that because of the talk of civility, "people will get a sense that they can't express themselves and that they can't reveal their beliefs, and I don't believe that the events that happened, as horrific and horrible as they are, can be at all connected to the discourse of the campaign."
A fear of expressing oneself, he says, would be a terrible result in the wake of the shooting rampage.
"The worst thing we can do as a society is feel like we're threatened or censored in any way," Christy says. "Certainly, no crazy gunman, who acted in the deep darkness of his own mental recesses, should have the capacity to stop the political process that has made our country and our system so great."
While Christy may be skeptical about the calls for civility, more than a dozen local politicians from both parties turned out for a press conference to announce their new support for more civil dialogue two days after President Barack Obama called for greater civility in his Tucson speech.
Beneath a U.S. flag flying at half-mast at the old Pima County Courthouse, the pols on Jan. 14 took a pledge: "I commit to promote a civil discussion of the issues we face."
Among the Republicans present: Mayor Bob Walkup, City Councilman Steve Kozachik, Pima County Supervisors Ray Carroll and Ann Day, and state lawmakers Frank Antenori, Ted Vogt and Terri Proud. The Democrats included Congressman Raúl Grijalva, City Council members Karin Uhlich, Regina Romero and Shirley Scott, and state lawmakers Steve Farley, Bruce Wheeler, Linda Lopez and Olivia Cajero Bedford.
Farley told the group that the day after the shooting, he contacted state House Speaker Kirk Adams, a Republican who represents Maricopa County's East Valley, and apologized for any comments he'd made in the past that were personally hurtful.
"We pledge ... to transform the civil discourse of our state," Farley said. "We, in doing that, can transform the civil discourse of our country and take us out of this abyss of negative demonization that we have found ourselves in."
Adams says the shooting and his conversation with Farley reminded him that "even though we have disagreements, we all really want the same thing. Each of us has a very human side to us. We have our own personal lives, our own families, and when we have these conflicts, we should make them about the ideas or the principles in which we believe, and not about any particular individual or personality."
Adams adds that conflict is inevitable in politics.
"Our system is set up for conflict," Adams says. "It's designed for conflict of ideas ... of what government should do and what government shouldn't do. We should never do anything that dampens that right."
Over the decade he's been involved in politics in Arizona, Adams has seen tempers "ebb and flow" among the public.
"I think that we're at a particularly intense period of time," Adams says. "I think that would be expected, considering the economic circumstances, the political upheaval and so forth. If you look at this from the perspective of American history, I don't think this is anything unusual."
Margaret Kenski, an experienced pollster who has long read the pulse of Southern Arizona, says that negative comments resonate much better with people than positive comments.
"It strikes us, and we have an emotional response to it," Kenski says about negative campaigning. "And after awhile, you become jaded, and you expect the worst."
While she disagrees with Dupnik's decision to raise the issue of civility at the press conference, she says that the sheriff has a point when he says all of the rabble-rousing on the campaign trail is leading to trouble when it comes to actual governing.
"There's such a difference between campaigning and governing," Kenski says. "It seems to me that while maybe the negativity gains you the attention and mobilizes your base and helps you get elected, I don't think you can govern that way. If you want to get things done, you have to talk to people."
For most of his three decades as Pima County's sheriff, Dupnik has avoided the limelight, quietly going about the job he was elected to do: overseeing the deputies in the department and running the jail. Unlike his counterpart to the north, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, he doesn't indulge in showbiz stunts that humiliate inmates in order to boost his profile, such as dressing inmates in pink underwear or feeding them green bologna.
But in recent years, Dupnik has become more outspoken. He riled up Congressman Raúl Grijalva and other Hispanic activists in 2009 when he said that 40 percent of the children in the Sunnyside School District were in the country illegally and blamed illegal immigrants for high crime rates.
Last year, he upset supporters of Arizona's controversial new immigration law by calling SB 1070 unnecessary, unconstitutional and "racist."
"If I were a Hispanic living in this state, I would be humiliated and angered," said Dupnik, "and from that point of view, I think it's morally wrong."
Dupnik has also been critical of Arizona's unrestrictive gun laws: "I have never been a proponent of letting everyone in this state carry guns under almost any situation, and that's almost where we are."
In the days after the shooting, Dupnik gave interviews to everyone from Fox News' Megyn Kelly to Democracy Now! talk-show host Amy Goodman.
In his interview with Goodman, Dupnik repeated a complaint he has made before about the number of mentally ill people who end up in the Pima County Jail, because they didn't get help before they ran afoul of the law.
But an underlying problem, he asserted, was that America's political system "is totally broken. And anger plays a large role in the things that are going on. And there are people who play to the anger in our people and who encourage it."
Dupnik stopped talking to the press about the shooting last week. But on the night of Obama's Tucson speech, he wasn't backing down.
"I said what I thought," Dupnik said. "I don't have an agenda. I didn't say it for any particular political purpose. I know I'm not long for public life. Hopefully, I've got a few more years of life."