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A Safeway in Arizona: What the Gabrielle Giffords Shooting Tells Us About the Grand Canyon State and Life in America
It has been a year and a month since the day the shots pierced the heart of Arizona on January 8, 2011. In all, 19 victims were shot. Six lives were taken and Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords gravely wounded. Friends, families, a state and a nation were torn at their emotional seams.
The news crews came for their live shots, talking heads talked, pundits opined, quick clues to a deeper cause and meaning sought and catharsis stated to have been reached in a stirring memorial led by an eloquent President. Over time, the initial raw wounds seemed to merge into the amazing evolving story of strength, resilience and recovery of Gabby Giffords. And, to be sure, there are few parallels in public life to the resilience and recovery of Gabby, it has been stunning, heartwarming and inspirational.
But there is more, much more, to the shooting that day at Congress On Your Corner, and that is the subject of A Safeway in Arizona: What the Gabrielle Giffords Shooting Tells Us About the Grand Canyon State and Life in America, by today’s guest, author and journalist Tom Zoellner. Tom is not just a chronicler of the events and surroundings, he is a native of Arizona, and Tucson, and speaks not only with factual accuracy and thoroughness, but passion and deep understanding of his subject.
Arizona depends on reinvention. The narrative of a fresh start in a warm place is the root of the economy, and the unsustainable nature of that dream over the long run is the largest part of what ails the state today.
Zoellner opens with the the setup and events at the shooting scene, but then takes the reader on a sprawling ride through Arizona’s history and structure, both as a state and Tucson as his own home. Interwoven into the picture of Arizona and Tucson is also the tale of how and why it is the home of his dear friend Gabby Giffords, and the other souls who came to be part of the story at the Safeway at the intersection of fabled Ina and Oracle roads in Tucson. Much like all the people – from Gabby, to the Chief Judge of Arizona’s Federal Courts, John Roll, to nine year year old Christina Taylor Green, and the others – Ina and Oracle roads do not seem like they ought to intersect where they do. Yet intersect they do, and did in a tragedy that says at once everything about Arizona problems, and nothing to the real ethos of its substantial good and beauty.
At the Safeway In Tucson, all the factors and people intersected with Jared Lee Loughner. Zoellner plumbs the depth of a disturbed and alienated young man who, in hindsight, seems so clearly headed to the result he created. But the story of Loughner, and the environment which molded him, is also the story of the city of Tucson, state of Arizona and, yes, the nation. The story of opportunity wasted and lost, of a social fabric too easily frayed, and human beings too easily lost as the teeming masses swirl around them. It is a tale of us, not just them.
And that is the real power of A Safeway in Arizona: What the Gabrielle Giffords Shooting Tells Us About the Grand Canyon State and Life in America, it is the tale of all of us. In that regard, it is certainly not always a comfortable and smooth ride through the pages; Zoellner drills into the pathology of the “rugged individualist” movement, stark isolation of disaffected youth, rank bigotry against Hispanics fostered by small but influential right wing zealotry, the out of control gun culture and mental illness in a time when austerity and tax cuts have emaciated the social services that could ameliorate the various ills.
There are more questions asked than necessarily answered by Tom Zoellner’s gritty, but honest book. It is the story of both disassociation, resilience and reinvention. I was going to craft a nice little soundbite like quote to summarize today’s book, but I cannot top the inestimable Charlie Pierce:
One of the great comforting fictions of our time is the notion that acts of public violence are random things. In his exemplary account of the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and the murder of several other people, Tom Zoellner denies us the cheap solace of easy answers and sets Jared Loughner’s rampage in the context of a violent time in a country that seems more fragile by the hour.
For those of you unaware, today’s discussion comes only three days before the centennial celebration of Arizona’s statehood which, as you can surmise, came on February 14, 1912. There are a lot of bad stories relentlessly reported about Arizona on effectively a daily basis, and there is certainly extremely honest reportage of it in Zoellner’s book. But take it from me, like Tom Zoellner I am also a native, Arizona is also a beautiful and fantastic state, with wonderful people and a fascinating history. It is all here. So join us for a discussion of A Safeway in Arizona: What the Gabrielle Giffords Shooting Tells Us About the Grand Canyon State and Life in America.
[Tom Zoellner is the author of five nonfiction books, including Uranium, The Heartless Stone and Train: Smoke, Iron and the Invention of the Modern World, forthcoming from Viking/Penguin in 2013. He was also the co-author of the New York Times bestselling book An Ordinary Man. Tom has worked as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and The Arizona Republic, and as a contributing editor for Men’s Health magazine. He is now an Associate Professor of English at Chapman University and lives in Los Angeles.]