AMERICANS were searching their souls last night, contemplating whether the country's 'toxic' political environment was to blame for a shooting that left a congresswoman fighting for her life and six people dead.
Gabrielle Giffords (40) the wife of an astronaut and second cousin of actress Gwyneth Paltrow, had set up stall to meet constituents outside a Safeway supermarket at a shopping mall in Tucson, Arizona, on Saturday morning.
Standing in line to meet her was Jared Loughner (22) who opened fire with a Glock semi-automatic pistol, shooting her at close range in the head. Miss Giffords, a Democrat, was still alive last night despite a bullet having passed through her brain. Another 20 people were hit.
The dead included John Roll, a judge who had stopped by to see his congresswoman friend after attending Mass; a nine-year-old girl, Christina-Taylor Greene; and Miss Giffords' aide, Gabe Zimmerman (30).
The other victims were Dorothy Morris (76), Dorwin Stoddard (76), and Phyllis Scheck (79).
Miss Giffords was in a critical condition at the University Medical Centre in Tucson, but doctors said she was able to communicate by raising one or two fingers or squeezing the hand of surgeons. They said they were "cautiously optimistic".
Clarence Dupnik, the county sheriff, criticised the political atmosphere in the United States -- particularly in the state of Arizona, where the tinderbox issue of immigration is to the fore.
"It's a horrendous, senseless, unbelievable crime," he said. "It's time to do a little soul-searching about the rhetoric we hear on the radio, how our children are being raised. The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous."
Asked if Miss Giffords had any enemies, her father, Spencer (75), said: "Yeah, the whole Tea Party," referring to the Right-wing grassroots movement that has been responsible for the upswing in political fortunes of the Republicans.
In March, Miss Giffords' office in Arizona was vandalised during heated rows that accompanied health care reform.
Her district was also one of those on a controversial election target list put out by Sarah Palin, the former Republican vice-presidential candidate, under what appeared to be the crosshairs of a gunsight.
At the time, Miss Giffords said: "When people do that, they've got to realise there are consequences to that action."
Rebecca Mansour, an aide to Mrs Palin, said the image did not use gunsights and it was "obscene and appalling" to connect it to the killings.
Emanuel Cleaver, a Democratic congressman, said the country was in a "dark place" and the atmosphere was "toxic".
Loughner appeared in court yesterday charged with murder and could face the death penalty if convicted. Detectives believe Loughner may have intended to kill himself after the shooting and he may have had an accomplice who helped him up until the time of the killings. Loughner lived in a nearby working-class area with his parents.
In a posting on his page on MySpace at 5am, hours before the shooting, Loughner wrote: "Goodbye friends. Please don't be mad at me." (© Daily Telegraph, London)