WASHINGTON - Recriminations and soul-searching burst forth Sunday over whether an inflamed political climate influenced a gunman to shoot a US congresswoman and 19 other people in Arizona.
From the left and the right, politicians and commentators seized on the attempted assassination of Representative Gabrielle Giffords Saturday as either a reflection of the passions stirred up by rabble-rousing conservatives or the isolated act of an unhinged psychopath.
Liberals highlighted a map posted online ahead of the November elections by Sarah Palin's political action committee showing a map of the United States with the locations of vulnerable politicians, including Giffords, designated with cross-hairs.
Palin's trademark war cry - "Don't Retreat, Reload" - also came under fire.
"These sorts of things, I think, invite the kind of toxic rhetoric that can lead unstable people to believe this is an acceptable response," said Dick Durbin, the number two Democrat in the Senate, in an interview with CNN.
But Senator Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee, speaking on the same "State of the Union" show, objected to the implication that Palin was responsible, but called for greater civility in political debate.
"We ought to cool it, tone it down, treat each other with great respect, respect each other's ideas, and even on difficult issues like immigration or taxes or health care law, do our best not to inflame passions," he said.
Giffords, 40, was in critical condition Sunday after being shot through the head at an outdoor meet-and-greet with constituents at shopping mall.
The gunman then opened fire on the crowd, killing six and wounding 13 more. A federal judge and a nine-year-old girl were among the dead.
Jared Lee Loughner, a 22-year-old local resident with a reported history of rambling Internet postings on subjects like mind control, was arrested at the scene.
In her only comment, Palin posted a message on Facebook saying, "My sincere condolences are offered to the family of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the other victims of today's tragic shooting in Arizona."
"We have nothing whatsoever to do with this," Rebecca Mansour, who worked on the Palin campaign, told a radio show. "We never ever, ever intended it to be gun sights. It was simply cross-hairs like you'd see on maps."
Giffords was narrowly re-elected in November to a third term in the House of Representatives after a bruising campaign in a deeply divided swing district in the southeastern corner of conservative Arizona.
A fierce opponent of Arizona's controversial immigration law and targeted by the Tea Party for her vote in favor health care reform, Giffords had received threats during the campaign.
In August 2009, a man with a gun was forcibly removed from one of her rally, and in March, just after the landmark health care vote, a glass door to her office were broken or shot out by vandals, "I have a Glock 9-millimeter, and I'm a pretty good shot," Giffords said in dismissing the threats.
Pima County sheriff Clarence Dupnik, a Democrat and opponent of the state's loose gun laws, said threats against politicians were not unusual, but warned of a rising rhetoric of hatred, paranoia and mistrust of government.
"To try to inflame the public on a daily basis 24 hours a day, seven days a week, has impact on people, especially who are unbalanced personalities to begin with," he said at a news conference Sunday.
Arizona Republicans expressed shock and dismay at the shooting, and praised Giffords as a respected public servant performing the duties of her office.
"She never really played partisan politics," said Arizona's Republican governor Jan Brewer. "She was serious about what she did and she was always concerned with what - with what good of her district. And so you have to admire someone like that."
Senator John McCain called it a "senseless act of violence" that had shocked him and the nation.
Allyson Miller, founder of the Tea Party Movement in Tucson, sought to distance her group from the violence, telling an interviewer from the TPM website that the attack was "outrageous."
But she said critics were "jumping to this conclusion that it has to do with the hotly contested congressional race."
"Well, apparently, from what I've seen so far...it's looking like that's not the case," she added.
Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat who served alongside Giffords in the House of Representatives, said, however, that the political climate had been toxic for so long that it had set the stage for Saturday's violence.
"Anybody who contributed to feeding this monster had better step back and realize they're threatening our form of government," he said.