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.