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Pima County Sheriff Sets Off Debate on Price of Free Speech

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Sunday: Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik speaks at a news conference in Tucson, Ariz., a day after a shooting injured or killed 20 people, including a federal judge. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords survived the shooting and was in critical condition following brain surgery.AP

Heightened and "vitriolic" political rhetoric is being blamed by some for the kind of violence that landed Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in intensive care following a mass casualty shooting on Saturday, but others say a blame game is hardly appropriate or useful right now.

Pima County, Ariz., Sheriff Clarence Dupnik sparked much of the debate during a press conference Saturday evening in which he blamed talk radio and television for a decline in America.

"I think the vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out from people in the radio business and some people in the TV business and what (we) see on TV and how our youngsters are being raised, that this has not become the nice United States of America that most of us grew up in. And I think it's time that we do the soul-searching," the sheriff said.

On Sunday, Dupnik didn't back down.  

"I think we're the tombstone of the United States of America," Dupnik said of The Grand Canyon State, which a day earlier he called the “Mecca” of hatred and bigotry. "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."

"The sheriff out there in Tucson, I think he's got it right," Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., the assistant minority whip, told "Fox News Sunday." "Words do have consequences. And I think that we have to really -- this is nothing new. I've been saying this for a long time now."

"I think the sheriff was right," added Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who appeared on CBS' "Face the Nation."

"Bob, when you and I grew up, we grew up listening to essentially three major news outlets: NBC, ABC, and of course, CBS. We listened to people like Walter Cronkite and Eric Sevareid, and Huntley-Brinkley, and they saw their job as to inform us of the facts and we would make a conclusion," Hoyer said. "Far too many broadcasts now and so many outlets have the intent of inciting, and inciting people to opposition, to anger, to thinking the other side is less than moral. And I think that is a context in which somebody who is mentally unbalanced can somehow feel justified in taking this kind of action. And I think we need to all take cognizance of that and be aware that what we say can, in fact, have consequences."

Others suggested that the shooting that left six dead and 14 wounded is a one-off that can't be attributed to any logical explanation or current events. 

"Our politics takes place in the halls of Congress and at the ballot box. It doesn't happen at a barrel of a gun. This is clearly an isolated incident," Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, told Fox News.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., who appeared with Clyburn, said she is not aware that alleged shooter Jared Lee Loughner is tied to a political movement or engaged in a politically motivated act. 

"You know, his favorite books are 'the Communist Manifesto' and 'Mein Kampf.' I think it's important that we recognize that this is an individual that had -- that has mental challenges, and we need to act appropriately in dealing with him and making sure that justice prevails here," she said.

Still, blame seems to be pouring out from all kinds of sources. FBI Director Robert Mueller said in a Sunday press conference that the "ubiquitous nature of the Internet" has made hateful information "much more readily available to individuals than it was eight or 10 or 15 years ago and that absolutely presents a challenge to us particularly as it relates to lone wolfs."

Mueller added that investigators are looking through Loughner's computer for indications of possible motives.

After news broke Saturday about the shooting, Republican Sarah Palin issued a statement offering "sincere condolences" to Giffords and other victims and said her family was praying for peace and justice. 

But on Sunday, ABC reporter Dan Harris interviewed Facebook consumer marketing director Randi Zuckerberg, who said the top question being asked on Facebook is whether Palin is to blame for the violence. During the election season, Palin had written a post that used crosshairs on districts in a visualization congressional districts targeted for Republican takeover. In 2004, Democrats used bullseye targets in a similar appeal.

A Palin aide told USA Today that the sights used on the election map were not meant to represent the sights of a gun, and any suggestion otherwise is the work of political flame-throwers.

"This is a terrible politicization of a tragedy," former Palin aide Rebecca Monsour told the newspaper. "We don't know (the shooter's) motive. It doesn't seem like he was motivated by a political ideology. Craziness is not an ideology."

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who appeared Sunday on CNN, said it's the responsibility of those in public life and the media to "try to bring down the rhetoric."

"The phrase, 'Don't retreat; reload,' putting crosshairs on congressional districts as targets. These sorts of things, I think, invite the kind of toxic rhetoric that can lead unstable people to believe this is an acceptable response," he said.

Other politicians suggested the Tea Party movement is somehow responsible for the shooting, which elicited a fierce response from Judson Phillips, co-founder of Tea Party Nation, who issued a statement condemning attribution of the tragedy to heated political discourse. 

"At a time like this, it is terrible that we do have to think about politics. No matter what the shooter's motivations were, the left is going to blame this on the Tea Party movement. While we need to take a moment to extend our sympathies to the families of those who died, we cannot allow the hard left to do what it tried to do in 1995 after the Oklahoma City Bombing. Within the entire political spectrum, there are extremists, both on the left and the right. Violence of this nature should be decried by everyone, and not used for political gain," Phillips said.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., agreed that it's reckless to impute the motives of the shooter to any particular group of Americans who have their own political beliefs. 

"What we know about this individual, for example, is that he was reading Karl Marx and reading Hitler ... That's not the profile of a typical Tea Party member and that's the inference that's being made," Alexander told CNN's "State of the Union."

"It's tempting to say this person's actions might have been a result of [another] person's comments, but I think we need to be very careful about imputing any of these actions on someone else," he said.

Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., a liberal firebrand, added that it's easy for some people in society not to make a distinction between words and actions, but talking to the shooter will help reveal his true motivations.

"Whatever this young man was responding to or whatever we find out ... one of the most interesting things here is that we have the shooter in custody and he's alive ... we're going to find out an awful lot about what's going on, but we've got to be careful about what we say to each other," McDermott said.