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Heated political climate could have influenced Arizona shooter

The violent nature of current political discourse in the US may have had a role in the Arizona shooting, argues an expert on US politics. As a consequence the Tea Party movement should tone down its rhetoric.

Candles and flowers are placed outside the office of US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, in Tucson, Arizona

Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was targeted by the shooter

Christian Lammert is a visiting professor of US domestic politics at Berlin's Free University.

The target of the shooting spree in Arizona, Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford, was political, but according to many accounts the gunman was mentally unstable. So was the shooting politically motivated or simply the act of a deranged person?

Christian Lammert: It may be both. It seems clear that there is no conclusive connection between the motive of the alleged shooter and the inflamed political discourse that has become the norm in recent times in the United States and especially in Arizona.

But I would agree with Sheriff Clarence Dupnik who has said that there is a connection between a heated public debate and what it does to the thinking of mentally fragile personalities. So we have to have two discussions here. One is about the individual stance of the shooter and the other is about the heated political debate in the United States that influences such actions.

How would you describe the current very hostile and polarized political climate in the US that may be conducive to such acts?

Especially in Arizona we have two hot topics. We have the healthcare debate there and we have a very heated debate on immigration reform in Arizona. And if you take a look at these discussions about these two reform processes and the TV ads during the election campaign you find a heated debate with a lot of violence connotations in it like a member of Congress shooting at specific signs in election ads. And this might give people a reason to act like the Tuscan shooter did although it would not have an impact on a normal American citizen.

But we see here a difference in the style of American politics and how it is connected to the security of a politician. And this will be one consequence that will see changes in how politicians might interact with their constituency.

The incident has already sparked a debate about the motives and consequences of the shooting. What will this do to a society that is already deeply divided politically and is also experiencing severe economic hardships?

What the Americans have to talk about right now is how do we react to this event. And I guess there will be two discussions with different outcomes. One is the way the political discourse is working in the United States. And as we can see in Washington, they've stopped the political process for this week, especially the debate about healthcare reform. There have to be some signs from the political elites that discourse is not about violence, but about reasonable decisions and agreements.

And the second aspect, and I am not quite sure whether it will be a successful discussion, is about gun control in the United States. If we take Arizona, this is the state in the United States with the most ardent pro-gun ownership legislation, and also has in Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford a strong defender of the second amendment (which establishes the constitutional right to gun ownership - the ed.). So this will be a hard discussion about gun control and my sense is that there will be no consequences coming out of these discussions about gun restriction.

President Obama called the shooting a tragedy for the country and called for a moment of silence for the victims to be held on Monday. What can Obama, who himself is reviled by certain parts of the political right in the US, do to lower the political temperature in the country?

There isn't that much he can do. He is not a personality that tries to make points in the political discussion by being aggressive. He is more a sort of rational, arguing politician. I don't think he's to blame for the brutal nature of the discourse in the United States. The political side that has to deliver now is more the political right, especially the Tea Party movement, because if you look at the political statements and election ads, it's mostly from the political right where you see violence in the discourse.

If you take for example the healthcare debate with the so-called death panels (i.e the false charge by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin that the government as part of healthcare reform would create panels who would make medical decisions about life or death - the ed.) Here is a dimension in the political discourse that goes beyond rational arguing, and I would say Obama is right in line with rational arguing. The one thing he can do right now is to say we need more rational arguments.

Assassinations of political leaders have of course a sad history in the US all the way back to when President Lincoln was assassinated, to President Kennedy and his brother and Martin Luther King, up until the more recent assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan. Are you afraid that we could see the return of such violence to US politics?

I am not quite sure, hopefully not. But the interesting point is that we have two spheres of security regarding politics in the United States. There are those politicians at the top level like President Obama where there is a high security level and it's nearly impossible to assassinate them. But then there are the members of Congress and of the House of Representatives who have a lower level of security.

This might change now and this will have consequences for this kind of grass roots democracy in the United States where you can contact your Congressman very easily, like the event in Arizona. My guess is there will be much more security and less access for the people to their politician as a result of this incident.

Interview: Michael Knigge
Editor: Rob Mudge

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