Like Gabrielle Giffords, Harry Mitchell and Ann Kirkpatrick were under siege during the health-care debate and appeared on Sarah Palin's "crosshairs" map. They tell Shushannah Walshe about death threats—and the need to cancel town-hall events. • Sarah Palin responded to critics today in an email to Glenn Beck, saying, “I hate violence. I hate war. Our children will not have peace if politicos just capitalize on this to succeed in portraying anyone as inciting terror and violence."
For Arizona Congressman Harry Mitchell, the threats were verbal, conveyed in messages left at his office. "I cannot tell you how much I wish a panty bomber would come in and just fucking blow your place up," one hissed. Another promised to "disembowel him with a rusty pitchfork."
For his colleague in the Arizona delegation, Ann Kirkpatrick, besides emails calling her a "whore," the threats got physical: A sewer cap was thrown through her office window. "Everybody in the back of their minds, everybody feared this, everybody put this into their calculations," says Kirkpatrick's former chief of staff, Michael Frias, "but nobody thought it would happen."
Frias was reflecting on Saturday's assassination attempt against Gabrielle Giffords, who, like Mitchell and Kirkpatrick, was an Arizona Democrat who supported health-care reform, and felt the fury that came with that. Most notoriously, Mitchell, Kirkpatrick, and Giffords were all among the 20 Democrats nationwide whose district showed up last March on the " crosshairs" map on Sarah Palin's Facebook page. Mitchell and Kirkpatrick lost their reelection campaigns in 2010. Giffords, fatefully, won.
• Peter Beinart: The Tea Party’s Terror Blind Spot• Benjamin Sarlin: Tea Party Under Siege• Full coverageThe motive of alleged shooter Jared Lee Loughner's rampage is unclear at this point, although signs point to a mentally disturbed young man. Mitchell tells The Daily Beast he had held about 30 events just like Giffords' town hall—but stopped them after they became "unproductive" shout-fests. "It's not rational… some opinions they had they really didn't want a discussion of any kind, they just wanted to yell at you," says Mitchell. A government teacher for 28 years before getting into politics, he found himself apologizing to former students about the angry discourse. "It's not the way I taught it."
That includes Palin's crosshairs map, which Mitchell says he "didn't think much about," chalking it up to "politics."
"My district has the highest level of education, highest level of income with pretty rational people," he says. "I didn't think people would buy it. I didn't run against it, I had my own way of campaigning."
“When someone believes that about you, it dehumanizes you to a certain extent.”
Giffords, however, told MSNBC she was concerned. "We're on Sarah Palin's targeted list," she said. "But the thing is, the way she has it depicted it has the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district. And when people do that, they've got to realize there are consequences to that action."
Kirkpatrick, meanwhile, tells The Daily Beast that she didn't even know about being on Palin's map when it came out. But the former congresswoman, who says she is "devastated" and "heartbroken" over the tragedy—besides a friendship with Giffords, she also had been a law clerk for Judge John Roll, who was murdered during the rampage—admits that her daughter called her about the crosshairs issue on Sunday, and was very upset.
"I guess it brings home to me we all have families as well," says Kirkpatrick. "Sometimes this kind of thing is so much harder on them than on the public servant. I made this choice to go into public service, but she didn't. Those kind of images and references to violence can be so hurtful."
Palin staffer Rebecca Mansour, in an interview Saturday with conservative radio host Tammy Bruce, explained the map, "We never ever, ever intended it to be gun sights," Mansour said. "We never imagined, it never occurred to us that anybody would consider it violent."
Kirkpatrick acknowledges that she was "very concerned" about her staff's safety when she received threats, but now the country should come together to try and make "civil and respectful debate possible instead of hateful attacks."
Mitchell's former district director, Rob Sherwood, describes the venom aimed at Mitchell this way: "You are not just wrong on the issue, you are a scumbag, you are evil." He added that his boss very much wanted to continue to meet with constituents, but the town halls just got too tense.
"When someone believes that about you, it dehumanizes you to a certain extent," he adds. "A thought like that in the hands of someone who is maybe unstable could lead straight to violent action."
Sherwood said the office reported threats to Capitol police, but "their attitude and their quote to us was, 'look we're not going to tell you how to run a congressional district office and you don't need to decide for us what's a threat or not.'"
"Arizona has some elements that intensified or drove it to a higher level in a lot of ways centered around the ongoing problems with immigration and the border and all these other elements that just may make it a shade or two more intense," says Sherwood.
When I asked Mitchell if he thought about what might have happened if he won his race last year, whether he might have found himself at a similar event as Giffords' on Saturday, he responded that he was sure Giffords thought some of the anger had dissipated after the elections.
"I'm sure she felt as I would have felt," the former congressman said, "that I'm sure the vitriol and rhetoric wouldn't be so bad."
Shushannah Walshe covers politics for The Daily Beast. She is the co-author of Sarah From Alaska: The Sudden Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar. She was a reporter and producer at the Fox News Channel from August 2001 until the end of the 2008 presidential campaign.