January 13th, 2011
03:13 PM ET
9 years ago

Cold War returns to White House for a day

Washington (CNN) - It was what diplomats might call a "frank exchange of views" Thursday as White House spokesman Robert Gibbs got into a Cold War-style tiff with a Russian reporter 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 outgoing press secretary then abruptly ended the news conference, which had the whiff of a tense Cold War exchange.

All that was missing was a shoe being pounded on a table in the White House briefing room.
The tense exchange began with Sitov, whose news agency is state-controlled, saying that he wanted to offer "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. 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 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.

"This is America, the democracy, the freedom of speech, the freedom of assembly, the freedom to petition your government," he said. "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.
Sitov told CNN later in a telephone interview that he meant no disrespect to the victims or their families.

The "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," he said, 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, "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 the fact 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," Simes said. "I think he clearly wanted to make a political point."

–CNN's Kate Bolduan contributed to this report

Filed under: Robert Gibbs • White House
soundoff (40 Responses)
  1. CutTax

    Yeap, agree, have to be special working camps for narco-addicts, to make theirs life clean and better

    January 13, 2011 04:13 pm at 4:13 pm |
  2. Marie

    Though I do agree with the Russian journalist. This is one of the risks of liberty. And while I am having a hard time accepting it in my heart when I think of my own small children... this is a risk I accept in lieu of the alternative.

    I want this freedom for my children, would I give up their lives for that? I don't know right now.

    I would give up MY life for them to have this freedom, and that is their choice when they are adults, but as children, I am having a real struggle with this now.

    January 13, 2011 04:16 pm at 4:16 pm |
  3. BoomBostic

    Ship his behind (can't say what I want to say) back home!!!!!

    January 13, 2011 04:20 pm at 4:20 pm |
  4. Wire Palladin, S. F.

    Congressional republicans not only cannot cut out $100 billion in the federal budget, they now are going to repeal health reform and add $230 billion to our debt and keep 35 million people uninsured. It seems that they have no interest in creating jobs, they have no interest in reducing the debt, and they have no interest in working for American taxpayers. I think, that next to birthers, republicans are as dumb as a stufit.

    January 13, 2011 04:21 pm at 4:21 pm |
  5. Adam J. Bezark

    Great. Just what we need.

    This terrible event has given us a rare opportunity to discuss the rise in violence in our country, and the need to consider appropriate gun safety laws to keep military-style assault weapons out of the hands of lunatics. It should be a careful and reasoned conversation, with sane but real results.

    So I actually agree with the core of the Russian reporter's question, but not the abrasive, insensitive way he said it. The result is that the Right will use his outburst as an ad hominem reason NOT to consider gun safety. "We can't enact gun control," they'll cry. "That's exactly what the COMMUNISTS want!"

    Never mind that it's the right thing to do. Never mind that the Russians are not, in fact, Communists anymore. We'll still hear Limbaugh, Beck, Palin and the rest screaming that the Only Real American Answer is More Guns.

    Thanks for nothing, Andrei Sitov. Next time, mind your own business and maybe we'll figure it out on our own.

    January 13, 2011 04:21 pm at 4:21 pm |
  6. TheTeacherThePreacher

    Even if we say (for the sake of argument) he has a point, at least America pays a price but enjoys the freedoms. In Russia, they pay a price...And enjoy what, exactly?

    January 13, 2011 04:27 pm at 4:27 pm |
  7. The Clear Thinking Independent

    Don`t shoot the messenger – DEAL with the message.

    We don`t need guns in this day and age. To cling to the "2nd Ammendment" as sacrosant is disingenuous in2011.

    It was intended to make sure people could hunt for food – we have supermarkets and could resist a tyrannical government run amok.

    The piddling hand gurn and rifles in public hands are no match for Fighter jets missiles or helicopters with rockets. To meet the intent of the "2nd", the NRA should be fighting for your right to park an F-16 in your driveway.

    Don`t get me started on a 30-round clip for a non-military weapon. There`s no way in hell that shoild be legal.

    January 13, 2011 04:33 pm at 4:33 pm |
  8. Citizen for Progress, Liberty, and Freedom

    Let's not be so quick to dismiss our Russian...or any other Earthling for that matter...bretheren. Regardless of the crime rate in Russia, I think it's quite safe to say that if there were stricter gun laws, let's say even a complete prohibition, since we no longer "defend" our homes from NATIVE Americans and therefore have no need to personally bear arms, it would be quite obvious that crime rates would plummet here in the US. Would there be more stabbings? Probably...but if you're going to be mugged, would you rather have someone pointing a knife or a gun at you? Perhaps then we'd all pay for martial arts lessons and learn something about honor, respect, and self defense. Either way, just because we have an evident problem (there are more violent crimes in the US than nearly all other countries COMBINED) and someone happens to point it out, we should not discredit them and instead should look within ourselves for a solution. The most evident and simplest being, new laws, as the journalist said. Besides, if we need to defend ourselves from our neighbors and fellow Americans, what good could come from using guns? Nothing can come of it but near certain death.

    January 13, 2011 04:34 pm at 4:34 pm |
  9. Freedom of Speech in the USA

    As if people aren't murdered in Russia every day even with their authoritarian system. A pretty lame attempt to poke us in the eye Ruskie! Now send him back to Russia where he can share his "freedoms" with his fellow Russians in the gulags. Talk about throwing stones from the roof of a glass house!!

    January 13, 2011 04:36 pm at 4:36 pm |
  10. GOP Taliban Victim

    TERRIBLE headline. Just because a Russian journalist asked the question? The reality is that this incident was politically motivated. Nobody knows who is anyone influenced him...but the question was something America needs to be honest about in self-reflection. We are setting a bad example for Democracy lately with all the partisan extremism. That's the truth Gibbs did not want to acknowledge.

    January 13, 2011 04:41 pm at 4:41 pm |
  11. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    We purport ourselves to be a super-power so we cannot be surprised when the world questions the whys and where fors of events that happen in our country.

    The question was a legitimate one. With the price of freedom we run the risk of madmen using those very freedoms against us. The thing is that this young man who committed these crimes is the EXCEPTION not the NORM. There is nothing that anyone or any government can do to keep us 100% safe from someone who buys a gun and decides to use for evil. Even if guns were outlawed, as our Russian friend will tell you, there is always the Black Market to acquire that which is illegal.

    The world is watching us America. They've been watching us for a loooong time. We need to put our best face and foot forward, which we haven't. We've been acting like hateful fools for all to see.
    If we want the respect the of the world we HAVE TO RESPECT EACH OTHER AND OURSELVES.

    January 13, 2011 04:43 pm at 4:43 pm |
  12. Henry Miller, Libertarian

    One could remind Mr Sitov of the three million Russians Stalin killed–because the citizens of the USSR were not allowed to own guns.

    January 13, 2011 04:48 pm at 4:48 pm |
  13. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    I will add if I may that there should be, IMHO, STRICTER gun laws.
    Certainly stricter than the laws currently in place in the state of Arizona.

    January 13, 2011 04:49 pm at 4:49 pm |
  14. DRCinDC

    what he should point if the government is so interested in making sure the citizens have access to healthcare why do they selectively choose to stay away from the difficult management of the mentally ill?
    yes, we do have a country that allows a madman to go off violently. Because there is noone stopping him until they have reason to shoot.
    The government failed to stop this guy by knowing he was a risk to others but claiming they couldn't do anything to stop him. until now. I hope Pima Comm College is as pleased with themselves as they are at Virginia Tech where they got to wash their hands of guilt with the blood of 31 victims.
    when does the governemnt start and where do they stop? follow the money – entitlements to the public sector jobs.

    January 13, 2011 04:51 pm at 4:51 pm |
  15. He's just talking about gun control ...

    ...which a lot of us freedom-loving Americans thing would be a fantastic idea. Sadly, firearms corporations and trailer-park nutjobs carry the day on this question. Sitov phrased it awkwardly but asked a valid question.

    January 13, 2011 05:01 pm at 5:01 pm |
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