A Tale of Two Sheriffs

The Tucson massacre that left six dead and
14 injured, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, brought into sharp public
focus the local sheriff, Clarence Dupnik. He's been the sheriff of Pima
County, which includes Tucson, Arizona's second-largest city, for 30
years. For the 20 years before that, he was a police officer. Dupnik has
gained attention this week for linking the shooting to the vitriolic
political climate in the U.S., and in particular, Arizona.

Speaking at a press conference shortly
after the shooting, Sheriff Dupnik said: "The anger, the hatred, the
bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. And
unfortunately, Arizona, I think, has become the capital. We have become
the mecca for prejudice and bigotry."

Arizona is one of three states in the
country that allow people to carry concealed weapons without a permit.
When asked about the law, the sheriff was emphatic: "We are the
Tombstone of the United States of America.... I have never been a
proponent of letting everybody in this state carry weapons under any
circumstances that they want. And that's almost where we are." He also
decried a proposed Arizona bill that would allow students and professors
to carry guns on campus.

The suspected shooter, 22-year-old Jared
Loughner, by most accounts suffers from some form of mental illness. Yet
he was able to buy a semi-automatic pistol, along with
extended-capacity magazines to hold more bullets. He bought the bullets
the same morning as the attack.

When I interviewed Dupnik, he called
Arizona's gun laws "insane," and reaffirmed the link he made between
political rhetoric and the shooting: "I think that there are a lot of
people in the radio industry, especially, and some in the TV industry,
who make millions of dollars off of inflaming the public, purveying hate
against the government, and distrust. In my judgment, people who are
mentally unstable are very susceptible to the kind of rhetoric that's
going on in our country."

One of those whose rhetoric has attracted attention is Sarah Palin. She
published a map of the United States on her political action committee's
website that listed 20 congressional seats held by Democrats whom she
was "targeting" in the 2010 elections, including Gabrielle Giffords. The
map marked each district with the cross hairs of a gun. More
controversially, she linked to the cross hairs map through a tweet that
read, "Don't Retreat, Instead-RELOAD!"

Giffords spoke directly to Palin's use of
the cross hairs when they first appeared, noting that "When people do
that ... there are consequences to that action." Giffords' opponent in
the midterm elections, the tea-party-backed Iraq veteran Jesse Kelly,
held an event advertised with the words: "Get on Target for Victory in
November. Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully
automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly."

As Giffords' father rushed to her hospital bedside, he was asked if she had any enemies. "Yeah," he said, "The whole tea party."

As direct and offensive as Palin's campaign
was, it was a small part of the political vitriol that has consumed
Arizona in recent years. Republican Gov. Jan Brewer gained national
notoriety when she signed into law the controversial immigration bill SB
1070, which Dupnik fiercely opposed: "Every Hispanic in this country,
especially in Arizona, must have awakened the next day to feel like
they've been kicked in the teeth, like they are now second-class
citizens, they have a target on their back, because when they leave the
house, they're going to have to take papers with them and prepare to be
stopped and questioned."

Contrast Dupnik with the sheriff of nearby
Maricopa County, Joe Arpaio. He is notorious for the harsh conditions in
which he jails people, using canvas tents in the searing summer heat.
He has pledged to expand his tent city to accommodate the expected
influx of detained immigrants. He is the subject of a U.S. Justice
Department federal civil-rights lawsuit focusing on his treatment of
prisoners and immigrants, and on abuse of power.

The Arizona Republic reports that Jared
Loughner, charged in federal court for the murders and attacks, normally
would have been remanded to the Maricopa County Jail, but "given the
high profile of the case and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's
penchant for publicity, they moved Loughner instead to [a] federal
facility."

As the country unites against the terror in
Tucson, let's take the targets off the backs of all innocent civilians,
and hope the humanity of Sheriff Dupnik prevails over the cruel vitriol
of Arpaio and his ilk.

Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.