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Giffords Shooting Becomes an Instant Symbol

In an instant on a January morning, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords went from a well-liked but largely unknown Blue Dog Democrat to a national symbol of the dangers of overheated political rhetoric.

Giffords was critically injured with a shot to the head as a gunman opened fire at an event she was holding Saturday with constituents outside a Tucson, Ariz., grocery store. Nineteen other people were wounded in the rampage, six fatally, and the Congresswoman remained in critical condition Sunday.

On Sunday morning, University Medical Center Medical Director Peter Rhee said Giffords was able to respond to simple commands following emergency surgery Saturday in which doctors removed a portion of her skull. “Overall, this is as good as it’s going to get” in cases like this, he said. President Barack Obama asked Americans to observe a moment of silence at 11 a.m. today in recognition of the victims.

Among the dead were U.S. District Judge John Roll and Gabe Zimmerman, a 30-year-old Giffords aide who was recently engaged.

On Sunday afternoon, authorities charged 22-year-old Jared Loughner with murder, attempted murder and attempting to kill a Member of Congress. They said Loughner clearly intended to kill Giffords.

FBI Director Robert Mueller said Sunday it is possible “that additional charges will be brought under the domestic terrorism statute.”

Initially, little was known about the man who stands charged in the mass murder.

Former friends and acquaintances have described him as a loner who saw himself as an intellectual, a portrait supported by the little evidence Loughner seems to have left on the Internet. For instance, a YouTube profile allegedly belonging to him includes a laundry list of philosophical tracts as his favorite reading, including Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” “The Republic” by Plato and the “Communist Manifesto.”

Videos apparently uploaded to the site by Loughner consist of little more than rambling text criticizing the government and “illiterate” Arizonans, and references to his desire to create a new currency.

Police have said Loughner had a handful of traffic violations, and he was arrested in 2007 for possession of drug paraphernalia.

According to court records, Loughner was arrested Oct. 17, 2008, on unspecified criminal charges. A source familiar with the Pima County legal system said that in misdemeanor cases, city prosecutors may dismiss the charges if the defendant agrees to participate in a “diversion” program, which can include community service, rehabilitation or a fine.

Court records show Loughner completed his diversion program March 4, 2009.

At some point Loughner had attempted to join the Army, but he was rejected, military officials confirmed this weekend.

Ben McGahee, an instructor at the Pima Community College, which Loughner attended, told the Washington Post Sunday that he had concerns about the young man’s stability.

“I always felt, you know, somewhat paranoid … When I turned my back to write on the board, I would always turn back quickly — to see if he had a gun,” McGahee told the Post.

Loughner ultimately dropped out of the school, and officials warned him he would not be welcome back unless he received mental health help.

Whatever his motives, Loughner appears to have understood what he was about to do well before he reached the Safeway parking lot and began firing. Just before the attack, a message appeared on what is believed to be Loughner’s MySpace page, which read in part, “Goodbye friends. Dear friends … Please don’t be mad at me.”

Giffords is a centrist Democrat who won a bruising re-election campaign in her heavily Republican district in November. Saturday’s “Congress on Your Corner” event was her first this year, and it suddenly changed the face of the new Congress that was instead expected to be defined by the agenda of the new House Republican majority. Shortly after the shooting, House leaders suspended all legislative activity for this week.

UMC chief neurosurgeon Michael Lemole said Giffords will likely be in the intensive care unit for at least a week and spend several more weeks in the hospital.

“And no doubt there will be a rehabilitative phase, and that could take weeks or months,” he added.

Giffords’ colleagues poured out support for her and raised concerns that her shooting may have been a result of the heated rhetoric that is now commonplace in American political discourse.

“Rep. Giffords was innocently pursuing her interest in serving the public when she was shot in this maniacal act.  America must not tolerate violence or inflammatory rhetoric that incites political violence,” Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said in a statement Saturday.

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