Colleagues horrified by attack at most ordinary of events

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By Matt Viser and Lisa Wangsness
Globe Staff / January 9, 2011

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WASHINGTON — It was such a blatant act of public violence, an attack on a congresswoman while she was doing the most ordinary kind of work for constituents: meeting with people at a grocery store.

For members of Congress from Massachusetts, that stunning aspect of the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords hit home — such an unspeakable deed at such a commonplace event. For all of them, these gatherings are routine, and often without security arrangements.

“If you are going to do your job, you really have to be out there,’’ said Representative Stephen Lynch, a South Boston Democrat. “There is just no way around it.’’

“Representative Giffords was just out doing her job, and she’s fighting for her life today because of it,’’ said Senator John F. Kerry, a Democrat.

The rampage — which occurred yesterday at a “Congress on Your Corner’’ event near a grocery store in Tucson, Ariz. — also reminded them they serve in a time of a charged political atmosphere, with a sour and sometimes inflammatory tone in Washington and growing angst in the electorate.

“What the hell is going on?’’ said Representative Michael Capuano, a Somerville Democrat. “There’s always some degree of tension in politics; everybody knows the last couple of years there’s been an intentional increase in the degree of heat in political discourse. . . . If nothing else good comes out of this, I’m hoping it causes people to reconsider how they deal with things.’’

The House suspended all legislative action this week in reaction to the shooting. A new schedule is to be released today.

The motives of the shooter, identified by the Associated Press as Jared Loughner, are unknown. And several lawmakers warned against speculating on his intent. But they also said the job of being a representative has increasingly meant a decline in collegiality inside the chamber and a rise of angry rhetoric outside it.

William Delahunt, a Quincy Democrat who retired last month after four decades in public office, said risks are part of the job — but the nature of potential threats seemed to change in the summer of 2009 at town hall meetings held to discuss the health care reform legislation.

Anger over the bill reached a boiling point, and furious crowds confronted representatives, often shouting them down.

“For the first time, I sensed that there was a potential for physical danger with the anger,’’ Delahunt said yesterday. “ . . . But it was the intensity of it, and, really, the irrationality of it. People were so angry that they weren’t listening to the answers that they were demanding.’’

Like Capuano, he said he hoped yesterday’s attack would help the nation set higher standards of public discourse. “Words do matter,’’ he said.

The rancor climaxed in the final days of the health care debate last year, as threats to lawmakers spiked. Officials said members of Congress reported 42 cases of threats or violence in the first three months of 2010, nearly three times the 15 cases reported during the same period a year earlier, according to the AP.

The Tucson office of Giffords, who voted in favor of the health care plan, was vandalized after the vote. During her bid for reelection last year, her image was posted on a controversial map that Sarah Palin put on a Facebook page, which depicted Democrats who should be defeated. Those districts that Palin thought should be targeted were noted with gunsight crosshairs.

Giffords took issue with the image. “The thing is, that the way that she has it depicted has the crosshairs of a gunsight over our district. When people do that, they have to realize that there are consequences to that action,’’ Giffords had told MSNBC.

Representative Barney Frank, a Newton Democrat, helped Giffords in her reelection bid, holding a fund-raiser with her in Tucson in September. A few hours before the attack occurred yesterday, he and his partner, Jim Ready, had come across some pictures from the fund-raiser, Frank said in an interview.

“I’m horrified,’’ he said. ’’She’s a wonderful woman. . . . She’s one of those optimistic, outgoing people.’’ He was also shaken that a staff member was killed. “People getting murdered because they want to do public service? It’s really appalling,’’ he said.

The Capitol Police yesterday urged members of Congress to take “reasonable and prudent precautions.’’

Security details are rare for rank-and-file members, although additional security measures are sometimes taken for top House and Senate members. Lawmakers warned against any arrangements — or attitudes — that could fray the connection between representatives and the people they serve.

“It is a tragic and senseless and horrible incident not only because of deaths of these individuals and injuries, but also because it brings up the issue as to whether public officials can be safe when communicating with their constituents,’’ said Republican Representative Charles Bass, who won election in November in New Hampshire after being ousted from office in 2006.

“Constituent communication is the keystone to a representative democracy, and the day cannot come in America when members of Congress who are supposed to represent people can no longer feel safe,’’ Bass said.

Former secretary of defense William S. Cohen, who represented Maine for three terms in the House and three terms in the Senate between 1973 and 1997, said the more partisan tenor of political debate in recent years increases the likelihood of violent attacks against politicians. “The airwaves are saturated with a lot of hate,’’ Cohen said, citing 24-hour cable news and talk radio.

Clarence Dupnik, the Pima County, Ariz., sheriff, suggested “all this vitriol’’ in recent political discourse might be connected to the shootings. “This may be free speech,’’ he said, according to the AP, “but it’s not without consequences.’’

But Capuano and several lawmakers said they would do little to change their daily operations. Aside from installing a security system at his home, Capuano hasn’t made changes since being elected to Congress. Some encouraged him to get a gun permit, he said, but he declined.

“If someone wants to do me physical harm, that’s terrible,’’ he said. “But that’s life.’’

Bass, too, said he would not change his routine. “I think America cannot survive as a nation — or the government will be different, put it that way — if we can’t have our elected representatives be able to communicate with constituents without fear of personal injury,’’ he said.

Representative John Tierney, a Salem Democrat, said his staff is putting together several constituent events over the next several months — the same type that Giffords was holding. He said he doesn’t expect any changes.

“Basically we are the House of the people,’’ Tierney said. “We’re the closest federal representatives to our constituencies. We do our job effectively when we get out and around, and have contacts with people. We need to be accessible.’’

Bryan Bender of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Matt Viser can be reached at