In the wake of Saturday’s horrific murder spree in Tucson, Ariz., that left six dead and Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords gravely wounded, the House GOP leadership announced that normal legislative business would be suspended. It was the right move, showing proper respect for the victims and avoiding the crass spectacle of partisan votes in the tragedy’s aftermath.
Moreover, judging by some legislators’ reactions to the attack, Congress sorely needs a breathing period, lest it do serious damage by legislating in haste.
On Sunday, Rep. Robert Brady, D-Pa., announced that he will draft a bill criminalizing the use of language or symbols that could be read as threats to members of Congress. His prime example of such “threats” was an electoral-map graphic that ran on Sarah Palin’s SarahPAC website until it was taken down Saturday.
“You can’t put bull’s-eyes or cross hairs on a United States congressman,” Brady fumed, even though that was not what Palin did. The graphic put cross hairs over 20 legislative districts McCain had carried where members had voted for Obamacare, urging voters to “take back the 20.”
Common sense and First Amendment doctrine says the Palin graphic is not anywhere close to violent “incitement.” It is one thing for a legislator to complain that “the rhetoric is just ramped up so negatively” — I often feel that way myself — but quite another when they threaten to use the force of law to “shut this down.”
For his part, Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., called for beefed-up congressional security and special treatment by the Transportation Security Administration at airports (currently available only to top congressional officials). Clyburn complained that “we’ve had some incidents where TSA authorities think that [Congress members] should be treated like everybody else” — easily the most positive news I’ve heard about the TSA since its inception.
It is perfectly understandable that Saturday’s horror made some representatives feel unsafe. But assassination attempts on federal legislators are, thankfully, very rare in American life.
A 2002 Congressional Research Service report lists members of Congress who have died of “other than natural causes” while in office. The only assassination in the past four decades was when Rep. Leo Ryan, D-South San Francisco, was shot to death by members of the Peoples Temple in Guyana in 1978.
From what we know so far, the Jared Loughner case seems to fit into that mold. There is little evidence the accused has a coherent ideology. Loughner’s philosophy professor said the 22-year-old acted like “someone whose brains were scrambled” and whose “thoughts were unrelated to anything in our world.”
We should reject “solutions” that threaten to criminalize protected speech or increase the distance between the people’s representatives and those they serve. In the meantime, let us pray for the victims, and let the facts catch up to our Twitter feeds.
Examiner columnist Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and author of “The Cult of the Presidency.”