January 13th, 2011
03:26 PM ET
WASHINGTON (CNN) –It was what diplomats might call a "frank exchange of views," as White House spokesman Robert Gibbs got into a Cold War-style tiff with a Russian reporter Thursday about whether American freedoms go too far and may have led to the tragic shooting in Tucson.
In one of the most surreal moments I have ever seen in nearly seven years covering the beat, Andrei Sitov of the Itar-Tass News Agency pressed Gibbs at his daily briefing about whether "the quote, unquote 'freedom' of a deranged mind to react in a violent way is also American" like the freedom of speech and the right to assembly.
Gibbs, clearly ticked off by what appeared to some reporters in the briefing room to be a lecture by the Russian reporter just days after the horrific massacre in Tucson, bluntly declared that the tragedy was caused by the "deranged actions of a madman."
The tense exchange began with Sitov, whose news agency is state-controlled, saying that he wanted to offer "my condolences to all the Americans, especially obviously to the victims."
But then he added of the tragedy, "It does not seem all that incomprehensible, at least from the outside. It's the reverse side of freedom. Unless you want restrictions, unless you want a bigger role for the government –"
Other journalists were snapping their heads around to look quizzically at Sitov because they could not believe that the reporter was saying this while emotions are still so raw over the shooting, so Gibbs jumped in to try and deflect the tension by saying diplomatically "there's an investigation that's going on" and nobody should get ahead of that.
But Sitov started interrupting so Gibbs decided to go full steam ahead and push back emotionally.
"Hold on, let me - let me take my time back just for a second," Gibbs said. "I think there's an investigation that's going to go on. I think there are - I think as it goes on, we will learn more and more about what happened. I think as the President was clear last night, we may never know fully why or how. We may never have an understanding of why, as the President said, in the dark recesses of someone's mind, a violent person's mind, do actions like this spring forward. I don't want to surmise or think in the future of what some of that might be."
Gibbs added that it's important to also understand that the meet-and-greet session that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Arizona) was holding last Saturday where she and more than a dozens others were shot was "the exercise of some very important, very foundational freedoms to this country: the freedom of speech; the freedom to assemble; the freedom to petition your government; democracy or a form of self-government that is of, by and for the people - all of - all very quintessential American values" that are well known.
Sitov said he agreed with that characterization but persisted with his original line of thought, declaring: "This is America, the democracy, the freedom of speech, the freedom of assembly, the freedom to petition your government. And many people outside would also say - and the quote, unquote "freedom" of a deranged mind to react in a violent way is also American. How do you respond to that?"
Gibbs seemed startled by the last part and asked Sitov to repeat it, so the Russian journalist said again, "The quote, unquote 'freedom' of the deranged mind to respect - to react violently to that, it is also American."
"No, it's not," said Gibbs. "No, no, I would disagree vehemently with that. There are - there is nothing in the values of our country, there's nothing on the many laws on our books that would provide for somebody to impugn and impede on the very freedoms that you began with by exercising the actions that that individual took on that day. That is not American."
Gibbs' voice grew emotional as he added, "We had people that died. We had people whose lives will be changed forever because of the deranged actions of a madman. Those are not American. Those are not in keeping with the important bedrock values by which this country was founded and by which its citizens live each and every day of their lives in hopes of something better for those that are here."
The press secretary then ended the briefing before the exchange could go any further, and Sitov told CNN later in a telephone interview that he meant no disrespect to the victims or their families.
"First thing I want to say is we understand this is a terrible tragedy and we offer our condolences to the American people and especially the victims of this random act of violence," said Sitov, speaking as if he was speaking on behalf of all Russians. "In no way do we condone the actions of the deranged madman who did this."
"Now that we said all that," Sitov added quickly. "I also believe that what happened is a terrible price that the United States pays for the freedoms and liberties that Americans enjoy. This country unfortunately again suffered through several presidents being attacked, President Kennedy was killed. President Reagan was wounded by a deranged person."
Sitov said Americans do not seem to want to face that there needs to be stricter gun control measures if another tragedy is to be avoided.
"So my point is that there is the good side of the freedoms and liberties and rights," he said. "But there is the reverse side and if the government wanted to prevent such tragedies, as they say, one avenue is obvious. One avenue is to restrict the freedom to bear arms."
Sitov added, "But politically this seems to be impossible so people do not even talk to this. I am just an observer. I am not saying to Americans what they should and shouldn't do. It is your country you should do what you want."
Asked if he is advocating that Americans embrace communism, Sitov said, "The last thing I want to say is what Americans should and shouldn't do. What I'm saying is if Americans want this right to bear arms they need to be ready to face the consequences. And this is the consequences."
But Dimitri Simes, a native of Russia who now runs The Nixon Center here in the United States, noted that Russia is facing its own problems with firearms in many of its major cities.
"This question is a little difficult to take seriously, coming from a Russian journalist," said Simes. "I think he clearly wanted to make a political point."