Maine delegation shocked by Arizona shooting rampage

Posted Jan. 09, 2011, at 11:22 a.m.

ROCKLAND, Maine — Repercussions from the deadly shooting in Arizona are being felt by politicians around the country, according to Rep. Chellie Pingree, who said Sunday that security and hate speech are both very much on the minds of members of the U.S. Congress right now.

“One of the things we love in this country is that we have a free and open democracy,” she said during a press conference at the Rockland Ferry Terminal. “We occasionally encounter people who are very angry. An incident like this reminds us that we are very vulnerable.”

When asked whether she has received death threats before, Pingree replied, “Absolutely.”

“I think it’s more common than you’d like to believe,” she said. “We get a lot of angry phone calls, a tremendous amount of angry mail. I don’t think that any of us like to talk about it.”

People seemed especially angry during the health care debate last year in Washington, D.C., she said.

“There were people spitting, throwing things, calling names,” she said. “I believe the civil discourse is much better here in Maine.”

Pingree is friends with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and serves with her on the Armed Services Committee. The centrist Arizona Democrat is very well thought of in the House of Representatives, Pingree said.

“Gabby is a great fighter in Congress,” she said. “I know she’s fighting for her life, and we’re all hoping and praying for her.”

Giffords had been talking about coming to Maine for a visit, Pingree said.

“She’s just a great, hardworking member,” she said. “I like her a lot … my big hope is that she recovers fully and is able to come here.”

Although congressional representatives were taking part that afternoon in a conference call about security concerns, Pingree said it would be hard to imagine being assigned a security detail.

“All of us in the delegation try to be out in public as much as possible,” she said. “I would hate to see an overreaction take place.”

She was glad to hear that congressional Republicans have canceled debate on the health care repeal effort as one response to the shootings. Vitriolic language that has been so common in politics from both the right and the left must be toned down, she said.

“I hope they use this as an opportunity to talk a little bit about our political discourse, that the words we use matter,” Pingree said. “That happens on the left and the right. Everybody’s got to take it down.”

Colby College political scientist Sandy Maisel said Sunday afternoon that he doesn’t think hate speech is coming equally from both conservative and liberal factions but instead is most used by politicians on the right.

He also said the charged political language, seen in such examples as the map on Sarah Palin’s Facebook page that placed Rep. Giffords’ district in the crosshairs of a gun, can have dangerous, real-world consequences.

“Certainly, Governor Palin did not say it’s OK to kill Congresswoman Giffords,” Maisel said. “But for someone who’s deranged, to hear people say that if the ballot box doesn’t work, it’s time for bullets … it’s frightening.”

Maisel said he hopes the shootings in Arizona may mark a turning point for the country’s political dialogue.

“There are a lot of Republicans saying, as well as Democrats, ‘We’ve got to tone this down,’” he said.

The other members of Maine’s congressional delegation also were shocked and saddened by the shooting rampage that killed six at Giffords’ political event.

Rep. Mike Michaud and Giffords are both members of the House Blue Dog Coalition. In September 2008, Michaud, as chairman of the Veterans Health Subcommittee, traveled to Tucson to serve as co-host of a discussion with Giffords on mental health care for veterans.

“This was shocking news to hear,” Michaud said in a statement Saturday. “This is a national tragedy and an extremely sad day for our country. Congresswoman Giffords is a true advocate for the people of Arizona and is an exceptional member of Congress.”

Sen. Olympia Snowe said, “I was horrified and deeply saddened to learn of the unspeakable tragedy in Tucson, Arizona, when a gunman fired shots during a constituent event held by Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. My thoughts and prayers are with Representative Giffords, her staff, and with all of the families whose loved ones were killed or injured as a result of this deplorable rampage. Our nation is the greatest in the world partly because our constituents can have unfiltered interactions with those individuals who represent them in the U.S. Congress.”

Sen. Susan Collins said she was “shocked and saddened” at the news of the shooting.

“My prayers are with Congresswoman Giffords, her family and staff, and all of those who were killed and injured in this senseless attack,” Collins said.

Sunday afternoon, doctors were optimistic about Giffords’ chances for survival, saying they are “very, very encouraged” by her ability to respond to simple commands.

Surgeons said a bullet went through Giffords’ head on the left side of the brain. They credited several reasons for her survival, including good luck and the fact that paramedics got her to surgeons quickly — in less than 40 minutes.

“This is about as good as it is going to get,” said Dr. Peter Rhee, an Arizona trauma surgeon. “When you get shot in the head and the bullet goes through your brain, the chances of you living is very small, and the chances of you waking up and actually following commands is even much smaller than that. Hopefully, it will stay that way.”

BDN writer Meg Haskell and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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