US charges 'troubled' man with Arizona shootings
The US government on Sunday charged a 22-year-old man with attempted assassination in the Arizona shooting rampage and doctors expressed optimism that congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head, would recover.
The shooting of Giffords and 19 other people—six of whom were killed—in Tucson on Saturday fuelled debate about extreme political rhetoric in the United States after an acrimonious campaign for congressional elections in November.
The US government charged Jared Lee Loughner with two counts of first degree murder, one count of attempted assassination of a member of Congress and two other counts of attempted murder. Prosecutors said other charges could be filed.
Loughner was due to appear in court in Phoenix at 9pm GMT on Monday, the Justice Department said, as reports emerged of a troubled man who had been asked to leave a local college for disruptive behaviour.
Investigators said in the charges they found an envelope at his residence with the handwritten phrases “I planned ahead” and “My assassination,” along with the name “Giffords” and what appeared to be Loughner’s signature.
The suspect opened fire with a semi-automatic Glock pistol at close range while the Democratic congresswoman was attending a political meeting in a supermarket parking lot. US federal judge John Roll and a nine-year-old girl were among the six people killed. Fourteen people were wounded.
FBI director Robert Mueller told a news conference public officials should be on alert, but there was no information to suggest a further specific threat. Mueller said “hate speech and other inciteful speech” presented a challenge to law enforcement officials, especially when it resulted in “lone wolves” undertaking attacks.
President Barack Obama called on Americans to observe a moment of silence on Monday at 4pm GMT to commemorate the victims of the shooting.
Giffords, a 40-year-old Democrat, was in critical condition but was able to follow simple commands, such as holding up two fingers when asked, doctors at University Medical Centre in Tucson said.
A single bullet travelled the length of her brain on the left side, hitting an area that controls speech. Given the devastating wound, doctors said they were uncertain about the extent of brain damage she may have suffered.
Giffords has been put into a pharmaceutical coma but was being awakened frequently to check her progress.
“There are obvious areas of our brain that are less tolerant to intrusion,” said Dr Michael Lemole. “I don’t want to go down the speculation road but at the same time we’re cautiously optimistic.”
Gun violence is common in the United States but political shootings are rare.
Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik said a wounded woman, identified by CNN as Patricia Maisch, had grabbed away an ammunition magazine from the gunman as he tried to reload after shooting into the crowd. He managed to fit in another magazine but it jammed and he was tackled by two men.
The violence shocked politicians in Washington. Some Democrats said a climate of political vitriol might have played a role. “We are in a dark place in this country right now and the atmospheric condition is toxic,” Democratic Representative Emanuel Cleaver told NBC’s Meet the Press programme.
But Jon Kyl, a Republican senator from Arizona, cautioned against a “rush to speculate”.
“We really don’t know what motivated this young person, except to know he was very mentally unstable,” Kyl said on the Face the Nation show on CBS.
The father of the slain nine-year-old girl said she was born on September 11, 2001—the day of the hijacked plane attacks on New York and Washington. “She came into the world on 9/11 and then at nine-years-old she leaves it all on this terrible day,” John Green told ABC News.
Investigators were looking at a rambling internet manifesto left by Loughner or someone writing under that name. There was no coherent theme to the writing, which accused the government of mind control and demanded a new currency.
Loughner withdrew from Pima Community College in October 2010 after several encounters with campus police, college officials said in a statement. He was told to obtain a mental health clearance if he wished to return to school to show his attendance would not present a danger to himself or others.
The US Army confirmed the suspect attempted to enlist in December 2008 but was rejected for unspecified reasons. CNN reported he was rejected for failing a drug test.
Lawmakers in Washington put off their agenda for this week, including a vote on the repeal of Obama’s contentious healthcare overhaul. The president postponed a visit on Tuesday to a division of General Electric in Schenectady, New York.
The new Congress convened last week after the November 2 elections in which the Republican Party won control of the House and reduced the Democratic majority in the Senate.
The US Capitol Police cautioned members of Congress “to take reasonable and prudent precautions”. Still, most lawmakers are largely unguarded outside the Capitol, except the leaders of the House and Senate, who have security details.
Giffords warned previously that the heated rhetoric had prompted violent threats against her and vandalism at her office. Mueller said the suspect had attended a public event held by Giffords in 2007.
In an interview last year with MSNBC, Giffords cited a map of electoral targets put out by Sarah Palin, a Republican former Alaska governor and prominent conservative, that had each marked by the crosshairs of a rifle sight.
After the shooting, the graphic was removed from Palin’s website and she offered condolences on a posting on Facebook.
A Palin aide, Rebecca Mansour, told conservative radio host Tammy Bruce of the graphic: “We never, ever, ever intended it to be gun sights. It was simply crosshairs like you’d see on maps ... a surveyor’s symbol.”
Giffords, married to Nasa astronaut Navy Captain Mark Kelly, is seen as a rising star in the Democratic Party. She narrowly defeated a conservative opponent and was one of the few Democrats to survive the Republican sweep in swing districts in November’s elections.
Arizona has been at the center of a political firestorm in the past year, symbolizing a bitter partisan divide across much of America.
The spark was the border state’s move to crack down on illegal immigration last summer, a Bill proposed by conservative lawmakers and signed by the state’s Republican governor, Jan Brewer. - Reuters