How Arizona’s culture helped shape the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords

To understand why Jared Lee Loughner shot Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and 18 others 2011, look to Arizona’s vitriolic politics.

  • Sheriffs' deputies, the FBI and emergency medical personnel work the scene at the Safeway parking lot following the shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others in January 2011. Six died.

    Matt York, The Associated Press
  • Gabrielle Giffords' Arizona district was among those shown under a sniper's crosshairs on a map that appeared on Sarah Palin's website.

  • In March 2010, after her office was vandalized, Giffords told MSNBC that leaders "really need to realize that the rhetoric, firing people up ... there's consequences ... ."

  • Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a frequent dispenser of vitriol against undocumented immigrants, responds to Elias Bermudez, president of Immigrants Without Borders, during a protest in Phoenix in 2006.

    Matt York, The Associated Press
  • Jared Lee Loughner, in a photo distributed by the Pima County Sheriff's Office after his arrest in the Tucson shooting spree.

  • Loughner's Tucson home, on the street called Soledad (Solitary), about five miles from the Safeway where the shooting took place.

    David Becker/Getty Images
  • Arizona State Sen. Lori Klein holds her Ruger LCP .380 in the Arizona State Senate members' lounge in Phoenix. Klein made national headlines after she brought a gun into the State Capitol days after the Tucson shooting, and again last month, for pointing it at a reporter. (Used with permission of The Arizona Republic. Permission does not imply endorsement.)

    Mark Henle/The Arizona Republic
  • Gov. Jan Brewer shakes a finger at President Obama last month during his campaign stop in Phoenix.

    Haraz N. Ghanbari/Associated Press

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."

Gabrielle Giffords' last Republican opponent, in the 2010 general election, was a typical voluble upstart, Jesse Kelly. He served as a Marine in Iraq but had no political experience. At a Tea Party event in Douglas, on the Mexican border, Kelly compared Arizona's undocumented immigrants to terrorists in Iraq: "(Terrorists) want to kill everybody in this country. Unless we kill them first. ... It's no different than the problem we face right ... here on the border." Kelly often spoke contemptuously of the federal government, saying things like, "You will never again in your life have a government this putrid over you. ... They (people in Congress and the White House) don't love America." He expressed support for eliminating Social Security, and at another forum, he said: "I can tell you what I think the federal government's role in education is, and that is none. Absolutely none. These federal mandates they put on schools and they put on states, it does nothing but crush us. Why is Gabrielle Giffords running our local schools?" Asked whether government should have a role in preventing future outbreaks of salmonella poisoning from tainted eggs, he said, "It's our job to protect ourselves. Because no one else is going to look out for your best interests except for you." Every man for himself. The government should even stop meddling with companies that sell poisonous eggs. Yet Kelly found an eager audience in the 8th Congressional District, which includes rural southeastern Arizona as well as portions of Tucson; more than 134,000 Arizonans voted for him, and he came within a hairsbreadth of defeating Giffords.

During the 2010 race, Giffords was repeatedly branded as a menace to the American way of life. Her face was cast in sinister colors in attack ads all over Tucson. People reportedly called her office asking to speak to the "Communist bitch." Someone smashed the lights around a campaign sign in front of one of her volunteer's homes, and scrawled in marker across the sign: slut. The night after she voted for President Obama's health insurance reform, someone smashed the windows of her Tucson headquarters. She told MSNBC the next day, "Our office corner has become a place where the Tea Party movement congregates and the rhetoric is incredibly heated, not just the calls but the emails, the slurs."

Or you could consider Arizona's longtime love affair with guns. The state has some of the loosest gun laws in the country. You can carry a concealed pistol here without any permit or special training or even a background check for felonies. Only two other states -- Alaska and Vermont -- have laws this loose. There is no waiting period to buy a gun in Arizona, no law barring the mentally ill from buying guns, and no limit on the amount of ammunition in a gun's magazine. At one of Giffords' "Congress on Your Corner" events at a Safeway in Douglas in 2010, a handgun fell out of an angry man's pants. At Obama's August 2009 appearance in Phoenix, a 28-year-old man dramatized his protest by wearing a pistol and an AR-15 rifle slung across his chest; he explained to the Republic, "In Arizona, I still have some freedoms left." The act of carrying a handgun is about more than freedom, though; it involves -- and encourages -- the assumption that the universe is hostile and capricious. In such a world, anyone who feels threatened needs to be able to end the life of another in a moment.

Or -- considering that Jared Lee Loughner suffered from paranoid schizophrenia when he bought his gun and ammo and then fired -- you could focus on Arizona's failure to address mental illness. The delusions caused by schizophrenia are known to take on political contours, and whenever they do, they reflect the local political culture -- as Loughner's certainly did. The disease's symptoms include hallucinations, paranoid fantasies of an unseen controller and bursts of inexplicable violence. Crushing loneliness is almost always both a side effect and an aggravator.

Loughner was born at the Tucson Medical Center in 1988 and grew up in a ranch house in a neighborhood called Orangewood Estates, about five miles west of Safeway #1255, on a street called North Soledad -- Spanish for "solitary." His parents -- Randy Loughner, a construction handyman, and Amy Loughner, manager of a county park called Agua Caliente -- first met at a rock concert, and they encouraged him to play saxophone and drums. But he was shy in elementary school and junior high, and experimented with binge drinking and marijuana; he also vandalized street signs and played videogames for hours. Attempting to get his life on track, he earned a degree from an alternative high school, enrolled in Pima Community College classes, and tried to write poetry in the hope that others would enjoy it. He tackled books that challenge the intellect and ask penetrating questions about human existence. In his own way, Loughner was also asking those questions, trying to find a purpose for his life. Even when he was at his most garbled, he longed for a listener who could understand his point of view. He voted in elections and volunteered to help out at a book festival.

But nothing ever quite worked for Loughner. His universe was bounded by the spiritual numbness of chain stores. He worked at Peter Piper Pizza and Mandarin Grill, got fired from Quiznos and stomped away from his manager at Red Robin burgers. The best job he had was at Eddie Bauer, and he favored the food at In-and-Out Burger. He bought his gun at a Sportsman's Warehouse and the ammo at Walmart. Ultimately, he was an unemployed restaurant worker who was going slowly mad, in ways that were obvious to nearly everyone who met him -- going mad with peculiar political overtones. He made scenes inside fast-food restaurants and job centers, claiming his constitutional rights were being violated. The only real money was made of silver and gold, he insisted. He went to a forum where Giffords was speaking in 2007 and asked her: "What is government if words have no meaning?" He made so many bizarre statements in his Pima College classes that students and school officials got worried. The college police finally went to his house and read him a suspension notice, telling him he could not come back unless he had a statement verifying his mental health signed by a professional. But there is no indication that anybody tried to get any help for him. H. Clarke Romans, the executive director of the Tucson chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, describes the college's response as: "Let's solve this problem by removing it from the area of our responsibility."

Arizona's system for providing mental health care to needy people has been on a starvation diet for a long time, despite pressure from a class-action lawsuit filed by advocates for improvements. Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican who's been in office since 2003, has been unable to change that, despite having a schizophrenic son of her own. (Ronald Brewer has been locked up in the Arizona State Hospital since 1990, when a court found him not guilty by reason of insanity of a 1989 sexual assault and kidnapping.) Brewer initially proposed reforms and new programs for the seriously mentally ill, but the Legislature said no; eventually, she made $36 million in cuts to mental health services.

Of course, all of these factors can be found in other states. And many Arizonans cherish their friendships, volunteer at charities and work to strengthen a sense of community, despite all the angry background noise. But that noise is especially pervasive and inescapable here, and perhaps by trying to understand what happened, we can learn something useful. At least, we can be honest about how bad things have become.

Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, the head of law enforcement in Pima County, surrounding Tucson city limits, is a friend of Giffords. He framed the mass-murder in stark terms in an emotional press conference: "I think it's time as a country that we need to do a little soul-searching, because it's the vitriolic rhetoric that we hear, day in and day out, from people in the radio business, and some people in the TV business. ... This has not become the nice United States of America that most of us grew up in. ... When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths, about tearing down the government -- the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous, and unfortunately Arizona, I think, has become sort of the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry."

Dupnik was almost immediately hounded into silence by a virulent wave of criticism, but many in Tucson felt like he was on the right track. "Every time I hear that this (Loughner's shooting rampage) is just about a single sick individual -- that's so limiting, so naive and almost condescending," says Dan Ranieri, executive director of the La Frontera behavioral health centers in Tucson. "It defines a person just by an illness and it absolves people of their responsibilities. This event happened because of the extremism and the isolation of (people in) Arizona. And you have to talk about both. Nobody is going to convince me that didn't help pull the trigger."

One of the nation's foremost authorities on political assassination lives in a condo barely two miles from the Safeway. James A. Clarke is a professor emeritus at the University of Arizona and the author of On Being Mad or Merely Angry, a study of the psychology of John Hinckley, who tried to kill President Reagan in 1981, as well as American Assassins, a comprehensive exploration of the varied motivations behind many successful and would-be political assassins, from John Wilkes Booth on to the present day. Clarke found that those who plot violence against politicians are generally suffering from mental illness, and are also influenced by the culture at large. They are the product of a specific set of circumstances in a specific time. The idea that the political noise in the autumn of 2010 didn't influence Loughner's decision to shoot Giffords is, Clarke says, "pure nonsense."

"The toxicity of (Giffords' last campaign) was beyond anything I've ever experienced, and I've lived here 30 years," says Clarke. "I don't think the kid (Loughner) had a clear political rationale. It may not have been defined in liberal-conservative terms, but he was clearly anti-government, and the anti-government rhetoric was a major part of the campaign against Gabrielle Giffords." For someone like Loughner, who was spiraling into a paranoid schizophrenic view of the world, "Giffords was the government doing all these bad things." He adds: "All assassins have a history of social disconnection. And the neighborhoods here are some of the coldest and most distant that I've ever experienced."

I know this instinctively, because I grew up in one of those subdivisions, and I have not forgotten the loneliness. When I was 11, in 1980, my parents moved us from Phoenix to what was then the edge of Tucson, into a new subdivision that had a typical arbitrary name, Shadow Hills, about two miles from the Safeway. A Texas megacorporation, U.S. Home, had bought two square miles of desert and bladed streets that ignored the natural contours, with names like Camino Alberca (Swimming Pool Street) and Camino Padre Isidoro (Father Isidoro Street). To this day I have no idea who Father Isidoro was or if he even existed or was just a developer's picturesque invention. On the side of our house was a limbless saguaro cactus that was slowly dying; one of the men who helped build the house had shot it repeatedly with a pneumatic nail gun, so its flank was full of rusting metal and its ribs were rotting from the wounds. There were no sidewalks; I rode my bicycle in endless circuits past other houses that were like locked-up boxes. I knew no one in them, and seldom saw our neighbors except when they were sealed inside their cars.

My junior high school was called Orange Grove, though there were no orange groves anywhere in sight, just more cactus. As a newcomer, I ate lunch alone each day and got provoked into stupid fights. I learned to be on guard constantly, failed quizzes and stopped doing homework, instead watching hours of bad TV shows without any pleasure. My father kept a pistol hidden in a closet, and I found myself wondering what it would be like to shoot myself. After I read The Monkey Wrench Gang, Edward Abbey's novel about a group of desert eco-raiders, I began pulling up survey stakes on the empty Shadow Hills lots and tossing them in the washes, in a fatuous mini-protest against "development." Sometimes I sneaked into unfinished houses and smashed out the windows with rocks, or took lengths of rebar steel and flung them at saguaros, where they made a satisfying, fleshy thunk, and the cactus bled green juice like tears. I had nobody to talk with and even flunked seventh grade. At my high school, Canyon del Oro, I threw myself into the school newspaper. I loved everything about that: the way the page crystallized reality into neat columns; the hard rationality of deadlines; the chemical smell of the ink from the printers; the sense of subversive power that came from being able to lob stink-bomb stories against some administrative outrage or another.

Most of all, I loved the way that the newspaper helped me feel like I belonged, without actually belonging. Taking on the role of a journalist allowed me to float among a variety of activities, watching and summarizing but not participating. The role forced me to talk to people, but I could keep my distance; I didn't have to contribute anything other than a few pleasant questions. The journalist's posture of impartiality was never difficult for me; I dodged commitment to any cause, and refused to believe that I belonged in Arizona. My buddies and I took our parents' cars out and ran over curbside garbage cans, flattening them and scattering trash in the xeriscaped yards like a mini-cyclone. We got arrested a time or two by Sheriff Dupnik's deputies for petty vandalism and other misdeeds. Massive shopping strips were springing up on all the important corners, and I took a job as a burger chef at a Carl's Jr. fast-food restaurant for minimum wage. The spattering from the processed meat left my uniform constantly greasy. I worked there for a year, addicted to the money that bought gasoline.

In search of a horizon I couldn't name, I escaped to a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin, and then I chased full-time newspaper jobs, deliberately changing papers and cities every few years. Eventually, I got hired by The Arizona Republic and moved back to Phoenix. I rented a loft apartment downtown with a view of urban palm trees and walked to work on cracked sidewalks, across the same routes where my grandmother had walked to her elementary school in the 1920s. I lunched with the lawyer-lobbyists who helped run things at the Capitol, often at Mexican restaurants where misters sprayed fogs of water to keep the patios cool. Twice a year, a nonpartisan policy group put on an event called Arizona Town Hall, in which participants in the governing class sequestered themselves in a resort hotel somewhere, to debate some important question. The Republic dutifully covered these confabulations, and when my number came up I was told to go to El Tovar, the historic lodge on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, to write a couple of brief stories. The assignment was dull, but at a party the second night, I met Jim McNulty, an Irish prosecutor from Bisbee who represented Southern Arizona in Congress as a Democrat for a brief spell in the early 1980s. Sitting next to him was an attractive woman about my age, wearing an open-necked white blouse and a small gold chain necklace. Her hair was whiskey-colored and she had a mildly squeaky voice -- girlish but not unserious. When she laughed at something McNulty said, she squeezed her eyes shut and her cheekbones went even higher. She punched him on the arm with mock disdain. Her hands were small, with slender fingers and short unbitten fingernails. I learned that she was a newly elected member of the Arizona House of Representatives, named Gabrielle Giffords.

Our friendship began that night, as we talked about the sport of politics and walked around the mule corrals near the old hotel. She broadcast a bright interest in who I was and showed a touch of bemusement with her surroundings. She made friends as easily as other people breathe. She once told me that the best part of running for office was having a built-in excuse to approach strangers she wanted to talk with.

Gabby -- the nickname she enjoyed -- had grown up on Tucson's far-east side, in the family that owned El Campo Tire & Service, a local chain that branded itself "The Buck-Stretcher" in TV ads familiar to everyone in town. Her grandfather started the company as a single gas station in 1949; the son of a rabbi from Lithuania, he changed his name from Akiba Hornstien to Gif Giffords to avoid anti-Semitism. His son, Spencer, helped the company become successful; its many outlets featured service bays with brick arches that framed the windows in a Taco Bell style. "El Campo" is Spanish for "The Countryside," and the company sold a lot of tires to Latino customers in Arizona and Mexico. Gabby's mother, Gloria -- nicknamed Jinx -- is a bespectacled art conservator who loves to show off her extensive collection of Southwestern art as well as her own oil paintings.

Gabby laughed about her last name. It sounded friendly and breezy, and was both the product of her grandfather's whimsy and proof of the American capacity for reinvention. She earned degrees in Latin American studies, sociology and urban planning at Scripps College in Southern California and Cornell University in upstate New York, where she played up her Arizona cowgirl heritage by wearing vests and cowboy boots to class. She came home to run her family's tire company when her father needed to slow down, and then began her political career by serving in the state Legislature from 2001 until 2005. The Arizona chapter of Mental Health America named her legislator of the year in 2004, partly for her work on a bill to prohibit insurers from cutting back on treatment of the mentally ill. (The Legislature refused to pass the bill.) When she quit to run for the congressional seat that Kolbe left open, I put my writing career on hold to work for her 2006 campaign, going door-to-door to talk with voters. When Gabby won, I visited her new office in Washington, D.C., and stayed overnight in her small apartment near Capitol Hill while she was away on business. I left her a few housewarming gifts, including a six-pack of Negro Modela beer with a blue index card taped to it, on which I wrote: "For Emergencies Only." Three years later, I swung through D.C. again when she was out of town and borrowed the keys to her apartment. That same pack of beer was inside the fridge, untouched, with the note still attached.

Congresswoman Giffords was still Gabby from down the block, and our friendship endured. She took me to the phone bank at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and we lamented the scene: rows of cubicles with telephones on bare white desks, where members of Congress were supposed to dial for dollars in their free time. Later, at a cocktail fundraiser in a rich Democrat's apartment in New York City, she pulled me into the granite bathroom to show me her diamond engagement ring: Mark Kelly, an astronaut she'd been dating, had proposed to her just that afternoon. At that moment, she was giddy and nervous, but her speech to the crowd several minutes later was calm and measured. I attended her wedding in 2008 at an organic vegetable garden south of Tucson. Her gown was made from recycled material, and a line of Navy officers in dress whites saluted the couple with drawn swords. And then, in 2010, I paused my writing career again to work on her re-election campaign, in one of the nastiest elections I'd ever observed.

Gabby refused to demonize or dismiss her political opponents, even the obstructionists in the Arizona Legislature and Congress. She sought the kind of incremental change that comes through sweat and compromise, rather than indulging in grand, futile gestures. She supported solar energy, backed sane immigration reform that would reduce the number of immigrants dying in the desert, fought to make sure that federal college scholarships survived the budget cuts. I rarely asked her about congressional process; I figured she got enough of that elsewhere. "Awww," she would say at the end of each phone conversation. "I miss you. When do I get to see you again?"

The fact that Arizona could produce such a wonderful person, and such a wonderful politician, justifies holding onto some optimism about the state -- and by extension, some optimism about the nation as a whole. Another bit of optimism can be found in the behavior of the people around Gabby on the day she was shot. In that bloody moment, with no time to think, some of them stepped in front of bullets to save loved ones, suffering serious and even fatal wounds. Amid all the chaos and horror, people took the crucial steps that saved Gabby's life despite the bullet that tore through her brain. They formed a community on the spot, one stitched together by bullets.

Yet even for those who insist that Arizona's society and politics had nothing to do with the shootings, one question remains: What did Arizona do to change things after the shootings? President Obama came to Tucson and gave a great speech in the packed University of Arizona basketball arena. "We recognize our own mortality," Obama said, "and are reminded that in the fleeting time we have on this earth, what matters is not wealth, or status, or power, or fame -- but rather, how well we have loved, and what small part we have played in bettering the lives of others." A nonpartisan National Institute for Civil Discourse was founded at the university within a few weeks, dedicated to furthering "respectful civil engagement and reasonable political debate."

But so far, little or nothing has changed in the state. Just two days after Loughner's rampage, Arizona State Sen. Lori Klein announced that she carries a pistol in her purse even when she's on the Senate floor. "I pack," she bragged. In its first session after the shootings, the Legislature proudly declared the Colt Single-Action Army Revolver the official state firearm. It also cut $510 million from the state's health care budget, including services to the mentally ill. And it even attempted to make it legal to carry a gun without restriction on college campuses, a bill vetoed by Gov. Brewer, who said its language could have been interpreted to allow guns in high schools. Because of the funding cuts, Community Partnership of Southern Arizona, the agency that distributes public dollars to mental health clinics in Tucson, had to lay off 30 people and eliminate 20 other positions, so now there are even fewer qualified professionals to stop a potential schizophrenic killer. Right-wing talk shows and politicians and gun advocates continue to deny all responsibility.

It seems unlikely that Gabby will recover fully. Her speech is halting, her walk unsteady. But she is fully herself. With her typical honesty and humility, she resigned from Congress a few weeks ago, roughly a year before the end of her term. She made the announcement in a video in which she wore a smile and spoke slowly: "I don't remember much from that horrible day, but I will never forget the trust you placed in me to be your voice. ... I have more work to do on my recovery ... so to do what's best for Arizona, I will step down."

The state of Arizona will celebrate its 100th birthday this year. The bland, underfunded and dispirited official parties will largely ignore the social unraveling that has followed more than a half-century of spectacular residential growth in a landscape stripped of meaningful history. Instead, spectacles like those furnished by Sheriff Arpaio will attempt a convincing masquerade of real leadership. Gov. Brewer recently shook a scolding finger in the president's face when he landed at a metro Phoenix airport for an early campaign swing. Her cheap and swaggering memoir -- titled Scorpions for Breakfast -- highlights her signing of the state's draconian anti-immigration law. It got a quick boost in sales from those who loved her combative tone, though it served nothing but ego.

A much better example of the kind of leadership Arizona needs was provided by Gabby Giffords. Her actions at the Safeway in the moments before she was wounded -- reaching out to strangers to help them navigate the circles of power -- is a good foundation for a new beginning. Not just for Arizona, but for the nation as a whole.

This story was funded with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.

Tom Zoellner teaches writing at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and has authored five books. This essay is adapted from A Safeway in Arizona: What the Gabrielle Giffords Shooting Tells Us About the Grand Canyon State and Life in America, published last month by Viking.

Gabriel Vieira
Gabriel Vieira
Feb 20, 2012 11:05 PM
I can not believe that this is the level of writing that we 'green minded people' are to take home to our families and friends. Its like saying the reasoning behind Hitler's killing of the Jews was because he was born in Germany. It has nothing to do with it at all. Okay pointed out was the fact this guy had problems. He was underemployed and just unemployed. What person in any mind set would be happy with what this guy went through, oh yeah no one. The fact that he took his anger out on others is a problem but it has nothing to do at all with gun laws. Anyone with a mindset to do harm to a group or one person can do so with or without a gun. Also please keep in mind that law biding citizens tend to want to keep their guns for protection not for killing off the population. the amount of people able to get guns unlawfully goes up with demand this is a fact as shown in any third world country that is at war. Drug war, ethnic cleansing, or just government uprising....

If this was not required reading I would never read another story from High Country News. The mindset of a paper that should be for the betterment of the people of the west is nothing more than a watchtower flood of limited research and understandings. shame this should be a place of information to change the west for the betterment of its readers.
Richard  Ernst
Richard Ernst Subscriber
Feb 24, 2012 05:26 PM
I am actively working to make Arizona better. In March, Randy Parraz will be speaking in Green Valley. Randy led the successful recall of Russell Pearce, President of the Arizona Senate. He is now leading a challenge to Sheriff Arpaio of Maricopa county. With legislative redistricting there are more competitive legislative districts. So there is hope for change in Arizona!
Katherine Darrow
Katherine Darrow Subscriber
Feb 27, 2012 11:22 AM
Perhaps HCN could balance out the "extreme" perspective of this article with a piece on the abundant and powerful beacons of hope that are shining from Arizona. Here are links to just a few cool things happening in Phoenix, for example, that help me keep a more positive mindset about what's really going on here. There are some very strong grassroots growing up through all the cracks in the thick pavement of partisan politics! It is important to remember that "extreme" is not mainstream. It's just what the media, including HCN, focuses on. Time to change your lens. Please.
Gabriel Vieira
Gabriel Vieira
Feb 27, 2012 03:38 PM
Yes, Thank you, I lived in Phoenix in 94-95 and I know a lot has changed since. At the time Phoenix was the most friendly town I have ever lived in. Coming from a small farm town in California says a lot with the farmers market and all that....

But to say that a person is "only a product of their environment isn't saying much about the level of newsworthy art coming form Higher that though country life...
Christi Haswell
Christi Haswell
Feb 28, 2012 11:08 AM
 I have to echo Gabriel and Katherine's comments. This isn't what I want to subscribe to and I hope to be reading something more thoughtful soon.
Tom Robinson
Tom Robinson Subscriber
Feb 28, 2012 11:37 AM
This might be the most disappointing article or essay I've ever read in HCN, and we've subscribed for twenty years or more. Making it the cover article is even worse.

It starts out with a harsh opinion of Arizona's capital architecture, the relevance of which escapes me. Then it lays into the private financing of the capitol buildings, which doesn't seem especially indicative of decay; after all, Indiana has refinanced its turnpike this way.

I think a more salient point is the transient churn of Arizona's population, but how does that breed Giffords' assailant?

I look to HCN for a different take on the West's challenges -- something thoughtful and insightful. This essay did not meet that standard.
Deb Dedon
Deb Dedon Subscriber
Feb 28, 2012 12:40 PM
Sorry, fellow commenters, I don't agree. I've lived in Tucson, Arizona for more than 30 years and I have mourned the steady erosion of social cohesion, the death of the village that raises the child. Whether due to a transient population only invested in selfish seasonal pleasure, or to rugged land and a challenging climate, to dry air or political hot air, the end is the same, fragmentation ripe for exploitation.

A great part of HCN's journalistic mission is devoted to the politics of living and working in the west; Arizona's politics cannot be extracted or excepted. The fragmented social climate mirrors the fractured land, the fruits of divide and conquer politics fueled by greed. Over-development is killing Tucson physically and socially.

If any good will come from the dead and wounded, it is recognition of the problem. You can't really fix a problem until you know what it is. So I might ask you to view this sorry portrait of Arizona as a warning for other western states and cities.
Tom Robinson
Tom Robinson Subscriber
Feb 28, 2012 12:53 PM
You're living it, Deb, so your opinion matters. Any comment on the pushback of, say, Pearce's recall?
Deb Dedon
Deb Dedon Subscriber
Feb 28, 2012 01:34 PM
Part of the fragmentation is the significant cultural divide between Phoenix and southern Arizona. What flies in Phoenix crashes and burns south of Casa Grande. Politics centered on satisfying the physical resource demands of highly urbanized Phoenix effectively drains those resources from both southern and northern Arizona. Phoenix wins the game by playing south against north, fanning fear like wildfire smoke. Pearce was part of that game.

What concerns me now is finding another sane voice to fill the silence left by Gabby. I hope Ron Barber is up to the challenge of what promises to be a nasty campaign season.

Tom Reynolds
Tom Reynolds
Feb 28, 2012 03:20 PM
   I would not trade my childhood growing up in Phoenix ever, for anywhere else, absolutely. Tucson has always just been envious we were so lucky to have massive watersheds with annual snowpacks, and ideal locations for giant lakes, generating hydro-electric power, tons of recreational boating and fishing, and also 2-hours closer to the Pine country and skiing. What they’d like to see is everything paved in Phoenix, and all that water diverted to them instead. Who could blame them?
   I would agree the first several paragraphs of the article were malicious and just odd. It is bigoted to paint Arizonan’s that way, when you have people like Gabby and me working to preserve and restore the unique and remarkable state. Consider Pinal County, whose Master Plan calls for preserving agriculture and that fundamental industry as long as it is feasible. Consider the Audubon Society’s extensive restoration of riparian habitat in downtowns of Phoenix. Take one of the coolest university towns in American in Tempe.
   A huge barrier to enlightened, new thinking is Arizona is, I believe, connected to a distain for Federal regulations that restrict land owners from doing whatever they want to with the land and water. I would go so far as to say that the 3 dominate religious affiliations here indoctrinate their flocks to decry all taxes, decry all regulations, we provide our own safety nets, and “how can you pollute a desert-logic?” Put your money in the tray, and we’ll see to it that you are saved. Some paternalistic, inane, stupidity that just could never stay afloat in Boston, Minneapolis, Seattle, or Los Angeles. Arizona is the home of the heathens and the unfortunate masses, whom that owners of all the land and water know their legal claims can never be abridged. In other words, our leadership is comprised of cowboys, with utter distain for California progressives, and the community cultures that run deep across much of the educated-East.
   Daniel Quinn, in Ishmael and in The Story of B, make very plausible our utter corruption as The Great Forgetting and poor “plant everything”, totalitarian agriculture policy. Productive? Yes. Sustainable? Not likely. So, “Totalitarian agriculture is the fire under our cauldron. Totalitarian agriculture is what has kept us “on the boil” here for ten thousand years.
  What else do you think inspired Edward Abbey to decry our recklessness in cattle, copper, condominiums and cotton from 1950-1986? Our way of wasting habitat, yielding zero-regard for sprawl, pollution, and congestion, much less fore-sighted building standards that constrained sprawl and ensured environmental quality; it has been sickening….and I regret I have drunk from the trough myself. That our Republicans, way too many of them too-quick-to-war, would eliminate uniform regulations/protections/equality across all states in environmental protection and education makes me want to throw up. The military industrialists that give two shits about water, air, and 200 years from now….because they employ people? Really? That justifies it? Bolstered by the pulpits that champion “….pray and welcome His return, as soon as possible…this temporary home is not supposed to last…” That’s why I am so deeply committed to precision agriculture practices as an independent consultant specifying and commissioning systems and solutions preserving and serving planet, people, and profit.
Linton G Rohr
Linton G Rohr
Feb 28, 2012 06:48 PM
I was really disappointed to see your inflammatory cover story. Never mind the victims who actually lost their lives and their families and loved ones - apparently your chip-on-his-shoulder writer only met one person he ever liked in Arizona!
Tom Robinson
Tom Robinson Subscriber
Feb 29, 2012 12:32 AM
Seems like the pendulum is swinging back if Romney can carry every county in Arizona.
William Petersen
William Petersen Subscriber
Feb 29, 2012 12:31 PM
Seems there is some pretty thin skin among the Arizonians that they deem this article the worst ever written by HCN. Look, not everyone wants to admit that where they live or lived changed for the worse and has issues. I grew up in Denver and watched it go through issues in the 80s & 90s that made it barely tolerable to grow up in, when it briefly called the murder capital of the US because of overblown gang violence. But when I return to visit family, I see all of the positive changes that have occurred there over the last 10 years because of a commitment to improve itself in positive ways the benefited all of its citizens.

People don't like reading poor opinions or critiques of their "home" but the author grew up there and reflected that the same soul-less suburban landscape affected his own isolation and contributed to his boredom as a teenager. Which only further illustrated that the same suburban malaise hasn't changed for the better.

I think the article brings up salient points about the overall issues that face not just Western states but the country as a whole. Calling into question what contributes to and exacerbates the fracturing of communities as a whole and the seemingly devolvement of communities into "tribes" of us's and them's.

Arizonians might not like the bright light shining on the issues the state has but then it shouldn't be surprised either when it's citizens and lawmakers hold the state up as some beacon of freedom and liberty for a select demographic built upon the foundation of fear and loathing of "others".

Maybe instead of ratcheting up the vitriol about how the author's bias doesn't paint a Rockwellesque picture of Arizona, maybe we should look for ways to expand the conversation and recognize the complexity of physical, cultural and social issues that create an atmosphere where people don't feel any need to be active and positive members of their communities.

I don't agree with every article HCN does but then if I did, I wouldn't feel the need to subscribe to it all of these years. I appreciate their provocation of my brain stem. I also really appreciate that HCN is one of the few, if not only, remaining magazines out there that covers and uncovers, in it's unique voice, the issues that Westerners face today.

Mark Newby
Mark Newby Subscriber
Feb 29, 2012 12:51 PM
This is a hateful and twisted characterization of the State of Arizona to a degree that could be defined as a perversion. Under no circumstances can any journalistic venture survive a entrenched policy of justifying the means by the end. This is not just controversial, it is slanderous, and the citizens of Arizona will be the first to agree with me in this regard.

You need to seriously examine your mission statement and gt rid of the staff who think that the liberal party line is composed of fact instead of twisted, hateful fantasy. Were you trying change things for the better? Did you bother checking out a single fact? Perhaps you will be soon arrested for this article and confined in Sheriff Joe Arpaio's detention facilities. Now THAT would be a fitting application of justice.
William Petersen
William Petersen Subscriber
Feb 29, 2012 01:15 PM
This article isn't slanderous because it say anything untruthful. You might not agree with the author's opinion of how crappy the architecture is but you can't disagree with Jim Kolbe's perception that things have changed in Arizona to such a degree that there is no "sense of community" in some places.

As for the the "hateful" fantasies around here, your's concerning the author's arrest by Sheriff Arpaio is a perfect illustration of the vitriol the author was illustrating and is what some rational people would consider an example of "hateful fantasy."

There's this thing called cognitive dissonance. I think you're exhibiting that.
Mark Newby
Mark Newby Subscriber
Feb 29, 2012 02:45 PM
I can most certainly disagree with the false perception that shopping malls and television commercials are causing a cultural revolution that causes violent confrontation. His false logic does nothing to prove that development and architecture is a cause of social unrest and acts of violence. It is just stirring the pot to see what floats to the top. The author's opinion that Arizona has a failed culture deserves a fantasy or two to illustrate how deviant and wrong his conclusions are. Cognition is the last thing anyone would attribute to your comment or this article - it is just another buzzword that you are fond of to justify your opinion.
Gabriel Vieira
Gabriel Vieira
Feb 29, 2012 03:16 PM
Mark .... thank you.

your points leave little to the imagination and therefor noteworthy. That is to say you should be a writer for HCN maybe, well I'm more sure about your writing style and lack of slant than HCN...

This is what has been eating me about this article ... NOONE from HCN has stepped up and said anything about the article aside of just posting/printing it. Nothing about this is just the views of one writer and maybe not the views of this paper. /// yeah maybe. as in may not be expressed by the views of this paper. ...

Nothing to depict any feeling of humanistic hope at all.

Mission statement of the paper from the HEADER HCN for those that care about the west....

tell me how pointing out ills helps anyone at all.
there are no parties as of yet that care about the people they represent over the companies that are still funding them in the millions of dollars to just the prospect of getting into office let alone serving one single day the public they are yet to swear to uphold and protect..

OH yeah this is required reading at a University....

Not mother earth news that has articles to help help be self reliant..
William Petersen
William Petersen Subscriber
Feb 29, 2012 04:18 PM

Maybe you misread my comment. I said you could certainly disagree with the author's premise of crappy architecture and suburban sprawl contributing to the fractured "sense of place" but then you go on to say you can disagree with it by saying that "place" has no bearing on how people behave. Really? You think that if I put you into a closed cell with no outside contact or positive stimulation that it wouldn't have an effect on you? There's a book of essay I would recommend called 'Architecture of Fear' that talks about how our built environment can attribute to and have ill effects on peoples behaviors. If you want some other sources to read that actually point out how the built environment can lead to cultural, community and social unrest I'd be more than happy to share that. In case you forget, prison is a particular kind of architecture that dehumanizes. Slums have also been shown to foster cultures of crime and exacerbate social ills as well. Suburbs have also been studied for decades now as a form of development that heightens isolation and lowers community involvement. That's not fantasy or made up. There's plenty of literature on the issue.

And my point about cognitive dissonance was in reference to your fantasy comment about jailing the author for having dangerous fantasies of an Arizona that isn't all peaches and cream. Or perhaps you were just being ironic.

The author doesn't have any more moral obligation to provide a positive piece any more than he has the moral obligation to not write about negative issues. As a journalist he chose to write an opinion piece about what he thinks has led to the caustic politically charged culture currently residing in Arizona.

Apparently, pointing those issues out makes some reader uneasy about being made aware that there are people out there that relish highly charged rhetoric that does nothing more than stir the pot. Kind of like telling someone you hope they get arrested for telling you that people like to the stir the pot.

Maybe instead of demanding that HCN fire the writer or call for his arrest and imprisonment, ask HCN to write about what IS changing for the better in Az. In fact, submit your own article about what you're doing to make a positive impact.

Ray Ring
Ray Ring Subscriber
Feb 29, 2012 04:30 PM
Thanks for inviting me into this comment string. I'm the editor who handled Tom Zoellner's essay about Arizona's culture and the shooting of 19 people including Gabby Giffords.

As this comment string indicates, some readers think the essay went too far and was unfair, while some think it made good valid points about Arizona's culture, and some think it was worthwhile at least in provoking discussions like this. We see the same spread of reactions in formal letters to the editor.

As for me, I've been covering politics around the West for more than 30 years, and I see that each state has a different culture and personality.

I know Arizona pretty well, because I lived in Tucson for 15 years (1979 to 1994), mostly working as a journalist. During my time in Arizona, one governor was impeached (Evan Mecham, a car dealer who called black people "pickaninnies") and another governor was convicted of felonies (real-estate developer J. Fife Symington III). During the same period, many countries including the U.S. banned chemicals (CFCs) that cause holes in the ozone layer, but the Arizona Legislature rejected that science and passed a law that said Arizona would not ban CFCs in air conditioners -- a futile Flat-Earther gesture. Etc. For more background on that period in Arizona, see ...

I also know the plight of schizophrenics pretty well, because I had a schizophrenic brother in Arizona who ultimately committed suicide -- ...

With no steering from me, Tom Zoellner had no trouble finding experts who think that the dominant political dialogue in Arizona these days (anger toward the federal government) influenced the mentally-ill shooter. As Tom wrote, the culture does not cause mental illness, but it certainly does give mentally-ill people ideas about where to vent their paranoia.

Also as Tom wrote, of course there are many good people in Arizona doing good things. But collectively they don't manage to be louder than the inflammatory, hateful, angry, fearful, gun-brandishing rhetoric. Maybe that's a fundamental problem with goodness everywhere -- it's more subtle than the badness.

Those are my thoughts and experiences. I understand that each of us has different experiences that have shaped our views.

High Country News values careful readers, and I hope you keep reading and letting us know your thoughts.

Tom Reynolds
Tom Reynolds
Feb 29, 2012 05:59 PM
This subject has been spoiling for about 18 years. I pray all Arizonan's reassess their demonizing of Jimmy Carter, clearly an Evangelical, and their antithetical embrace of Mitt Romney.
How profoundly wrong and corrupt to endorse one who professes (in Nephi 3) that Jesus killed thousands.....much less removed the curse of blacks who "joined" by turning them white.
There are so many sick things in America today, I'm ready to pull out. Head for Costa Rica or Peru.
Gabriel Vieira
Gabriel Vieira
Feb 29, 2012 06:36 PM
Tom could you be happy that someone that clams there is a God is running for any office?

I'm certain that anyone believing in any God would be better in office than someone that thinks we just happened.. trillions of elements just happening at one point in time to define the mass you are and the electrical firing synapses that make up your very thoughts.

The main point is that someone that cars about others is trying to run for office. He has money doesn't need more he wants to make a difference in the lives of those he would like to serve..

Different from what we have right now. the President that was voted in by those internet users, college students only to be taken for a ride and left on the side of the road without funding for Public education. the same President pan handling for Governors to fund education more??

Thanks to the Editor for commenting on the article.

My hats off to you for stepping forward so eloquently, and explaining at least your take on the article..
thank you.
William Petersen
William Petersen Subscriber
Feb 29, 2012 09:50 PM
If folks need yet another example of the "tame" political statements coming out of Arizona take a quick gander at this latest news item of an officer using a picture of the POTUS for his target practice. http://www.huffingtonpost.c[…]emoted-obama_n_1311461.html
Makes me wonder if there's something in the water.
Tom Reynolds
Tom Reynolds
Mar 01, 2012 08:58 AM
William - I could be the water, or a very lagged fall-out effect emanating from Nevada's A-bomb testing. But that could never explain the OK City bombing.

A society that supports automatic weapons on college campuses is only arming itself to defend itself from its own. The wackos that shoot up images of POTUS move others to arm themselves, and too many of those come from homes where bigotry and hostility are part of the mealtime parenting. They honor professional sports actors that got there by basically being meaner and bullish, and oh how handsomely that pays. The inclination for people to "excel" by tromping down the more liberal arts-inclined is only celebrated by corporate America shallow marketing.

The reason we have laws is because, though a very large majority of people are empathetic towards all whom intersect their lives, including future generations, is because there are, basically the evil-inclined, who will break the law for individual gain, which our sick government calls freedom.

The Cato Institute is a good example, with their preponderant view of libertarian view of laws of the land. That view posits that as long as someone does not cross your property line and take aggressive action directly, then there has been no crime. The problem with this of course is that the large property owner always has an advantage in court. Additionally, the American dream shepherds the wealthy to exploit the commons at the expense of future generations.....because, after all, man has dominion, forests and endangered species were put their to be consumed, and on and on. As Daniel Quinn posits, all the food belongs to man, and using violence to take it is perfectly normal, "just being a boy."

No, the more I work my way through Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, the more I realize that there is no limit to what the Right-Uber-Capitalist's will do to quash and push down the poor. They seem to have little sincere compassion, empathy for for the 30-40% of American's who wake up ever day without some measure of secured prosperity (through hard work and good grades)for their children. And, I know now I am being bigoted, but you can't deny the hatred spewing from dick heads like Limbaugh, Koch and Army, but ya know, Republican's do seem to hold up ethnic cleansing, white purity proudly. I am pretty certain they are still in the dark ages, and that may be genetic.
   This video below is a wonderful piece I discovered that helps me remain tolerant of their dark, hostile, polar values:[…]amp;feature=player_embedded
i didn't quite paste it right as a link, so you might have to copy and paste in your browser address window.
John Windes
John Windes
Mar 04, 2012 07:49 AM
Wow. I could hardly believe I was reading an HCN article when I read this. This is quite possibly the article that will redefine HCN from that of a paper delivering insightful, well researched stories, to simply another political rag full of opinions backed up by unrelated facts. While reading this I felt like I was listening to a left-wing version of Rush Limbaugh. I read HCN religiously and often send the articles to my friends and family and hold it out to my right-wing friends as a source that can be trusted to present a Western perspective as opposed to an urban, "liberal" perspective. This LEAD story is flabbergasting. What has happened to HCN?

As a third generation native Arizonan who lives "two miles" from the very Safeway where Gabby was shot and whose children go to school with the brother of Christina Taylor Green, I am doubly offended. If anyone is a product of Arizona culture it is me. If Arizona's culture produced Loughner, it produced just as many like me who are passionate about nature and wildlife, and who possess many more guns than Loughner ever did, but would never dream of turning those guns on the likes of Gabby Giffords and Christina Taylor Green. HCN you should be ASHAMED to have let this story into your paper. You disrespect all who died from Loughner's bullets. Loughner is mentally ill. His personal situation included the Arizona culture he lived in but blaming that for who Loughner is and what he did is just like Gabrielle Vieira said above, like blaming Hitler's psychosis on the culture of Germany.

Arizona is FULL of wacky right-wing politicians - I'll give you that. Arizona's history is one of exploitation by industry, whether it is cattle, copper, or development. But Arizona's culture is not responsible for Loughner or his actions. That's asinine. HCN, fire your editor. I want my paper back.

Give me a break.
Kip Dunn
Kip Dunn Subscriber
Mar 04, 2012 08:53 AM
The West is being destroyed by one thing. Population growth.Almost all of our growth is coming from immigration. Most of our immigration is illegal immigration. Arizona is at the epicenter of all of this. All of the West has an attitude and debate similar to Arizona's when it comes to gun control and immigration.Tucson is not the "High Country". I grew up reading the High Country News and a bogus article such as this would never have gotten printed in the past. Has anyone ever heard of Edward Abbey?
What tires me is California culture continuously imposing itself on the West.
Ray Ring
Ray Ring Subscriber
Mar 04, 2012 09:25 AM
A question for those who think this essay is entirely off track and Arizona's culture has nothing to do with the shooting of Gabby Giffords and 18 other people in a few seconds at the Tucson Safeway: Consider the increase in insane shooting rampages around the country, including all the shootings in schools. As far as I know, looking back in U.S. history, we didn't have many shootings like this until the last 10-15 years (one landmark is the 1999 rampage at Colorado's Columbine High School), and now they're common. If culture has nothing to do with it, how do you explain the surge in these shootings?

Mark Newby
Mark Newby Subscriber
Mar 04, 2012 09:41 AM
It is evident from the comments on this article that the protocol for the liberal-thinking and left-leaning proponents is to demean and attack all of those who are not like them, while claiming sole ownership of the values of caring and charity. I must commend HCN for allowing the pathology of these folks to be fully explored by the publication of this article and its ridiculous claims. I suggest that those who believe the party line espoused by the author need to confined and treated for the disease of self-pity and exclusion of others that has infected their souls.

I did, however, like the link to the cute little video about empathy applied to the planet as a whole. A lot of inclusive actions based on careful consideration of facts is going to be necessary to solve the big problems. Those actions are unlikely to be accomplished by people spewing hatred and bigotry for their "right-wing friends". If that is not a major contradiction in terms I am surprised; How does a person so bigoted and full of evil thoughts make any friends? Thank you for your words, they help us to identify the real problem, and it is likely people who think that shopping malls area a sign of the decay in society, that Safeway should be banned because it is harmful to the health of political figures, and that labeling a person based on their opinion is a solution to any problem. We can label Loughner as an insane psychopath based on his actions, but condemning people based on opinions stated as a result of a disastrous and false article about the the pseudo-science of liberal politics is just simply wrong.
Elizabeth Marum
Elizabeth Marum Subscriber
Mar 06, 2012 02:02 PM
I'm a native Arizonan that left after college. I return to visit family and love my home state. I was in Tucson for Christmas just before Gabby was shot, and the incident devastated me. I appreciate the author's perspective and HCN's reporting on this. Social issues bleed onto environmental issues, and vice versa. This is very much both. We cannot cocoon ourselves thinking that if we recycle, save water, compost and bike, we will solve the difficulties we face. Our intolerance and heated rhetoric is as much of our environment and as the bulldozed desert. Thank you, HCN, for offering this important perspective to me and others. I found this article so interesting, I wanted to post it to Facebook, saw these comments and write this simply because I appreciate HCN offering clarity--even if it is controversial.
William Petersen
William Petersen Subscriber
Mar 06, 2012 02:50 PM
Mark says

"I must commend HCN for allowing the pathology of these folks to be fully explored by the publication of this article and its ridiculous claims. I suggest that those who believe the party line espoused by the author need to confined and treated for the disease of self-pity and exclusion of others that has infected their souls.

Those actions are unlikely to be accomplished by people spewing hatred and bigotry for their "right-wing friends". If that is not a major contradiction in terms I am surprised; How does a person so bigoted and full of evil thoughts make any friends? Thank you for your words, they help us to identify the real problem, and it is likely people who think that shopping malls area a sign of the decay in society, that Safeway should be banned because it is harmful to the health of political figures, and that labeling a person based on their opinion is a solution to any problem."

So your labeling of left-leaning people as bigots for stating an an opinion contrary to yours and telling them they need confinement and treatment for their "pathology" is "furthering" the discussion how? Apparently the real problem isn't highlighting the complex social issues facing our communities, the problem is the person who identifies the problem. Now I understand. So Arizona's issues would be fixed if we simply fire the editors of HCN and replaced them.

One can choose to whistle past the graveyard and pretend that a culture based on fear-mongering, hyperbole, blaming the "others", and extreme rhetoric has little or no consequences but that doesn't mean the whistling vanquishes the facts that, as it stands, extreme rhetoric can influence unstable and stable people to behave irrationally, the built environment can exacerbate the isolation of people by fracturing their sense of "place" and sense of "community."

So what are our options for fixing these cultural issues that would cause someone like Laughner to go over the tipping point?

Would they be:

1. Recognizing that people living in isolated fear is not good. That people need to feel they are a valued part of the society in which they live and contribute? Instead of isolating oneself or others, make an effort to know your neighbors and become involved in positive ways.

2. Recognizing that we are all part of the solution as well as the problem. We can choose to be involved and make efforts to get to know 'those' people regardless of skin color or political persuasion? Ratchet down the extreme rhetoric.

3. Recognizing that endless sprawl does not significantly contribute to making livable communities where people can congregate, meet their neighbors, maintain a sense of community, be actively involved and look out for all of those in their community. What can be done to promote redevelopment and reinvestment in the forgotten communities that have been fled or abandoned for the "new" 30 miles outside of town?

4. Recognizing that we are part of the communities we live in and as citizens we need to be engaged in the best ways we can and in positive ways that reinforce our community. Not divide it.

John Windes
John Windes
Mar 07, 2012 11:24 AM
@ Ray Ring - I would suggest that correlation does not necessarily imply causation. Even if culture does have "something" to do with it, I suggest that this article ranks with most stories of alien abduction and cryptozoology (which HCN has recently dabbled in as well come to think of it) in terms of the degree of critical rigor applied to the arguments employed.
Mark Newby
Mark Newby Subscriber
Mar 07, 2012 01:00 PM
Dear Mr. Windes, it is well that this article has generated a lot of response and controversy. There is no better way to get people mad who want something to be true so badly that they will defend it in the face of logic and facts than to tell them that what they are attempting to prove does not make sense. It is probably good that they want to discuss it - criminal acts should never be part of public discourse. It is definitely bad that the same old tired tactics of personal attack and innuendo are the tools they bring to the table. Ah. left-wing liberals, can't live with 'em, can't live without them. But we can dream ..... and I still like Arizona.
John Windes
John Windes
Mar 09, 2012 09:32 AM
Thanks Mark. The crazy thing is that I agree with much of the characteriztion of Arizona and am in fact often the one in my circles being called the lefty. That said, I was immediately offended by the likes of Sheriff Dupnik, who wanted to blame Loughner's actions on right-wing vitriol. Dupnik's speech, and this article are, to me, the worst kind of vitriol; political opinion masquerading as something else.
Mark Newby
Mark Newby Subscriber
Mar 09, 2012 10:23 AM
I do not like poorly designed and widespread strip malls more than anyone else, but I do not blame 7-11 for armed robbery, dynamite for terrorist attacks, carbon dioxide for respiratory diseases, or cars for traffic jams. Solutions come from intelligent analysis and sound action, not emotional shock appeal, media wailing and sound bites. Smart readers and smart writers indeed are what is needed - but this article fell short of that standard.
Tom Robinson
Tom Robinson Subscriber
Mar 09, 2012 05:30 PM
@Ray, We have more mass shootings, but far less murder. Check the crime rates. And mass shootings aren't especially new. Don't forget Charles Whitman shooting 46 people from atop the clock tower at the University of Texas at Austin...
Deb Dedon
Deb Dedon Subscriber
Mar 11, 2012 02:34 PM
If anyone doubts the impact of vitriol in public discourse, I can only suggest they reflect on some of the comments above.

'Nuff said.
Sally Buttshaw
Sally Buttshaw Subscriber
Mar 14, 2012 01:23 AM
Wow, I have never read in this forum such a bunch of nasty, and yet truthful comments. I am a snowbird in Tucson, arrived the week before the shooting as a matter of fact. The writer was very hateful of Arizona but he became much more human as the story went on and he described his relationship with Gabby. But, this kind of vitriol and human disconnect is not unique to Arizona. Shootings happen everywhere now and it is a well known fact that whenever goverment has a budgeting problem, health care always is the first item to be cut. Lets thank our politicians for that one ! This article was a little out of the ordinary for High Country News, but it is a worthwhile subject to be covered as it does involve the west. Everything out here is not as rosy as it first seems when you cross the Mississippi River. We have our problems here because we are all the same humans, no matter where we live. On a side note, - Innocent Until Proven Guilty ! - what a joke - he was caught in the act, why hasnt he been punished by now. no trial needed !!!!!!!!!!!
John Donaldson
John Donaldson
Apr 04, 2012 10:57 PM
A couple of points occur to me and they are unrelated to Arizona, which like 49 other states has its specific issues and character. In my state - a next door neighbor - there are enough political issues to occupy a year round legislature. So the story of Arizona could be retold in some format for every other state in the West.
It is my opinion that Mr. Zoellner was writing a farewell to the Ms. Gifford he first knew, who he fully describes in the story. He enjoyed a special closeness with her, again as he fully describes. In fact he recounts how in his younger days he wasn't connected to people. Then he met Gabby...
Now THAT Gabby was taken from him and he needed to talk to someone about how that could possibly happen and who caused this loss. That someone to listen was us - HCN readers.
I am also a bit surprised that an experienced editor like Ray Ring didn't suggest more disclaimers. He did remind us this was an essay, essentially a personal statement, versus say an actual factual story.
So for me, I take this as Mr. Zoellner's personal and public tribute to the Ms. Gifford who was. And despite what I might feel about Ms. Gifford's or Mr. Zoellner's political outlook, I do sincerely hope and pray for Ms. Gifford and all the others who were senselessly injured and killed that day.
Ruby Ram
Ruby Ram
Aug 02, 2016 02:57 PM
I am from Arizona, and might I add that we have way to many mattress firms. They spring up as often as Walmart sprawl.
Brian Bylenok
Brian Bylenok Subscriber
Aug 03, 2016 10:51 AM
After living in rural NW Arizona for 15 years, I feel that community is here, but you have to search for it, mainly in the older locales. New developer areas are mostly filled w. folks from elsewhere, and somewhat disconnected from community, except where maybe their children's lives intersect them. In older sections, folks who came here mid-century needed help from their distant neighbors, and got it. There is a particular outspoken, gruff demeanor which belies helpfulness, if you are seen to be hard-working & not overly friendly. Folks out here keep to themselves, mostly, which is why fences are here. The easy camaraderie of folks whose lives are highly mobile & not connected to the land of any particular place is not what you find here. We came seeking community and instead found distrust & an interest in keeping everyone separate. Love of the land & animals goes a long way toward eventually breaking that crusty silence, but it's still a frontier mentality albeit minus the neighborliness which allowed so many to survive hardship. Suburban anonymity is not what I mean, though developers planned "communities" encourage that. I have found friends among quilters, artists, and book-lovers, but there is no easy way into the kind of over the backfence neighborliness that other regions enjoy- it just doesn't exist were, and is resisted w. some suspicion. A neighbor might feed you while you're building, might clean up the mess if you need to go to the ER, might invite you to a celebration once in a while, but mostly folks keep themselves to themselves, and anything further that you'd like will leave you wanting.

This is not to say that folks are unfriendly out here on the dirt roads,they'll wave & stop to check you are not stranded, nor are they all meth-cooking sociopaths, but they ARE gun-toting, and expect you to look after yourselves & your animals. There is no easy sharing. So it's just a different way of life, still, and you'd best get used to it, or leave, as many do. We're staying.
Richard Crow
Richard Crow Subscriber
Aug 03, 2016 06:58 PM
If this article was my first introduction to HCN I would never have subscribed. The authors obvious hatred of all things Arizona make me think he should move somewhere else.
Brian Bylenok
Brian Bylenok Subscriber
Aug 04, 2016 08:39 AM
We're so close to California here in S. AZ., that we think there's a commonality - wake up, there isn't except w. developers' "communities" increasingly filled w. folks who've fled CA., and are now intent on making us a lookalike. Tom lives in Orange, CA., and brings us a bit of truthfulness about AZ., so listen up folks. Maybe it takes an outsider to see what's here objectively, which many of the folks commenting don't seem to have. Objectivity doesn't equal hatred, mind, there's much to love about S.AZ., and not all of it is the land itself. It's hard scrabble, and will put you to the test as a survivor, though Gabby's story is a very sad one, and is a much needed wakeup call. So thanks Tom for the honest look,and keep it up.
Deb Dedon
Deb Dedon Subscriber
Aug 04, 2016 11:00 AM
For those who believe the article expresses 'hatred' for all things Arizona, well, all I can say is that you have a very low threshold for your perception of 'hatred'. Of course, I could suspect your motives.