If you're trying to understand the context in which Jared Lee Loughner shot Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in the head on Jan. 8, 2011, you might begin with the embarrassing situation of the state Capitol building.

Faced with a huge budget shortfall, Arizona's Department of Administration has sold off the entire Capitol and some other key state properties. Sounds like a bad joke. But it isn't. The department announced in 2010 that it raised $735 million through a "sale-leaseback" in which a bank trustee takes charge of state facilities for 20 years while the state essentially pays rent to the new landlord. Other hocked properties include the Legislature's ugly neo-Bauhaus chambers and the nine-story tower where the governor's office is located, which has all the majesty of a medical-dental plaza. The buildings have few admirers, anyway. "My first choice would be to bulldoze them down and start over," Republican Sen. Jake Flake once told the state's largest newspaper, The Arizona Republic. "We don't have an Arizona Capitol people can be proud of." That indicates what many Arizonans think about government, including, no doubt, their congressional delegates.

Or you could meditate on the design of the Safeway shopping center where Giffords, a Democrat, was staging a "Congress on Your Corner" event, meeting constituents in the parking lot, when Loughner drew and rapidly fired his Glock 19 semiautomatic pistol, killing six people and wounding 13. Known as La Toscana Village, it's one of Arizona's countless characterless strip malls, located in the sprawl of northwest Tucson. The exterior façade has three arches vaguely reminiscent of the style in Italy's Tuscany region, which has become a popular veneer for Arizona developments. The Safeway anchoring it -- #1255 in the giant grocery chain -- is a so-called "Lifestyle Store," remodeled into an air-conditioned cavern with muted lights and gleaming displays of produce, cut flowers and a cornucopia of other products that have no relation whatever to the Arizona desert. La Toscana Village also hosts a Walgreens, a Sparkle Cleaners, a China Phoenix restaurant, a HoneyBaked Ham, a Great Clips for Hair, a manicure salon called Nails Art, and a Jenny Craig Weight Loss Center. It would be difficult to imagine a more banal public space, almost a nonspace, but it's popular with shoppers, partly because there are no real alternatives in the centerless spread of homes near the Santa Catalina Mountains. Lots of cars pull in and out, but there is zero foot traffic. As Jack Jewett, a former state legislator who used to sell ads for the Territorial newspaper, which serves northwest Tucson, says of the area, "It wasn't a true community. It was a place designed by developers. There was no real glue that held it together, no central character."

Or you could blame Arizona's explosive growth; the population has more than doubled since 1980 to nearly 6.4 million today. That growth has come with a constant demographic churning. For every three people who move into an Arizona city in any given year, two others will move out, because their desert dreams have wilted or they're seeking better opportunities somewhere else. Jim Kolbe, a Republican who represented Giffords' district in Congress until he retired in 2006, has lived in his ranch-style home for 36 years, but he no longer knows a single person on his block. "It's a change in society," Kolbe says. "A breakdown in social bonds." Just 12 percent of Arizonans strongly agree that "people in our communities care about each other," according to a 2009 Gallup poll commissioned by the Center for the Future of Arizona. Even in the smallest community-building activities, Arizona fares dismally: "Arizona ranks 48th in the nation for people who say they trade favors with neighbors at least a few times a week -- watching one another's children, lending tools or kitchen supplies, house-sitting and other acts of kindness."

Or you could listen to Arizona's notoriously inflammatory political discourse, which often amounts to conjuring up demons that must then be vanquished. The targets include the undocumented immigrants sneaking across the Mexican border, despite the fact that they're essential workers in many local businesses; the Arizona Legislature has passed some of the most aggressive laws in the nation targeting them, and talk-radio hosts spew out endless harangues about it. Arizona's political system as a whole tends to give more weight to extreme positions than to mainstream values. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio -- the fame-seeking lawman who conducts anti-immigrant sweeps and forces jail inmates to live in tents surrounded by barbed wire -- is historically the state's most popular elected local official. "The real thing about Arizona is that we're all afraid," says Bill Hart, a senior policy analyst at Arizona State University's Morrison Institute for Public Policy. "The culture is changing, the economy is in a shambles, people's futures are not ensured. And so it's a springboard for ambitious politicians on all levels to play on that fear." Former Rep. Kolbe puts it this way: "The state is broken in so many ways. There's a sizable lack of leadership."