How Arizona's culture helped shape the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords
by Tom Zoellner
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.© High Country News