Not in a Vacuum

Arizona and Tucson need to shoulder some of the blame for the Jan. 8 shootings

What was the ultimate meaning of the mass murder at the Safeway? What are we supposed to learn from such a perverse event? Did it mean nothing at all?

These are uncomfortable questions. But as the anniversary comes around, it seems appropriate to reflect on whether this was a catastrophe that came out of nowhere, or whether there may have been specific human and societal factors behind the violence.

First, there's the mystery of what caused Jared Lee Loughner to buy a Glock from the Sportsman's Warehouse off of Thornydale Road and use it to try to kill his congresswoman. He may never be able to explain it himself. Paranoid schizophrenia is a disease that makes fantasy inseparable from reality, and Loughner had been suffering from it—in an agonizingly public way—for at least four years. He had been kicked out of Pima Community College for making nonsensical and semi-violent statements. All of his friends had deserted him. There was no job for him, no life, no hope, and the neurological equivalent of a tornado spinning in his mind.

We do know this, however: His choice for a target was inherently political. This was not a random selection. Nobody who lived through the 2010 congressional election will forget the way in which Gabrielle Giffords was publicly vilified. Her face had been cast in sinister shades in negative television advertisements and outdoor ads. Her opponent encouraged his donors to help him beat her by shooting an M16 rifle at a fundraiser. In Tucson that fall, she had become the embodiment of a federal government seen as wanting to raise taxes, open the border and kill jobs. You would have had to have been hiding under a rock not to have seen Giffords' distorted face peering out from everywhere like Big Brother. (Disclosure: Gabrielle has been a friend for many years, and I volunteered on her campaigns. Gabe Zimmerman, who lost his life at the Safeway, was also a friend.)

Jared Loughner was horribly sick, but he was certainly not hiding under a rock. This is a crucial point about schizophrenia that is not widely understood. Numerous studies show that the delusions of schizophrenic patients are powerfully influenced by the real-world stimulus that surrounds them. In China, for example, the delusions of paranoid-schizophrenia patients tend to center on themes of noble ancestry or the Communist party. In South Korean patients, there was a high degree of paranoia about secret agents sent by Kim Jong Il. In Taipei, it was the presence of gangsters. "Delusions regarding political themes were thus highly sensitive to the local political situation," wrote Dr. Kwangiel Kim, the lead researcher of one study.

Of course, there is nothing unique about angry politics, gun imagery and negative campaigning that is unique to Arizona. But to ignore the context of what was happening in the final days of his sickness is to miss one of the most-important lessons of the Safeway shootings, which is the way in which we failed to take even basic care of one of our neighbors. Tucson is an easier-than-usual place to get lost and forgotten. Our far-flung instant mega-barrios and our extremely rapid turnover of residents ("Three move in, two move out" has been the mantra for years among city planners) make it harder to form the lasting, informal social connections that make people take notice of fellow citizens in trouble.

A Gallup Poll two years ago showed that just 12 percent of Arizonans strongly agreed with the idea that "neighbors here care for one another." That this is the kind of state we've created for our children should give us all pause.

Add the stigma of mental illness to the baseline loneliness of life in the Tucson suburbs, and you have another important part of the context that created the Safeway disaster. This was a local version of the infamous Kitty Genovese syndrome—nobody responds to screams, because nobody wants to insert himself into the problems of a stranger. The social ties that would normally create a collective response are weak and flabby; people remain frozen in their privacies. Tucson makes it all too easy to live an isolated life, whether you're a Jared Loughner, or whether you live in a gated foothills subdivision.

My hope is that most Tucsonans will not take the easy intellectual route—which is to write off Loughner as a natural disaster that could not have been prevented. This was a collective human disaster. The environment of Arizona did not cause this disaster to happen per se, but there was an enabling context that was within our power to change. We can still change it.

Pima County has made an excellent start with the opening of the Crisis Response Center (, which is taking thousands of calls a month from people who fear that they, or a relative or friend, are suffering from a serious mental illness. But the state's leadership has shown no initiative in finding money to take care of nearly 5,000 impoverished and mentally ill citizens cut from the rolls of the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System. The Legislature found time to name an official state firearm, but did nothing to impede the sale of the extended-capacity magazines that allowed Loughner to mow down human beings like grass.

To believe that the entrenched gun interests in Phoenix would never allow such a ban is to engage in defeatist thinking, for such a ridiculous product has no legitimate place in big-box stores. And to say that someone as impaired as Loughner would have eventually found one on the black market is to misunderstand the horrifying casualness of his actions. Even one simple impediment, like a state-required gun-safety course, would have stopped all of this cold. Nobody in the world (except a disinterested clerk at the Sportsman's Warehouse) would have put a Glock into his hands after listening to five seconds of his rants about a "genocide school," or after taking even one look into those eyes.

In 1755, an earthquake leveled the city of Lisbon, Portugal, killing between 10,000 and 100,000 people and permanently derailing the nation's stature as a colonial power. It happened in the age of the printing press. Woodcut scenes of the destruction were sent worldwide. The quake had come on the morning of a church holiday, and its implications were chilling: How could a merciful God decide to take life on such a grand scale? What did it say about the justice of the universe that good and wicked people alike should die under the rubble, for no apparent reason? Preachers across Europe agonized over the Lisbon earthquake. A gloomy Voltaire concluded that this world was not "the best of all possible worlds" and blamed chance. John Wesley thought it was evidence that we should always be ready to meet God. Others thought the overcrowded conditions in the capital made the death toll even greater.

The mass murder on Jan. 8 was Tucson's version of such an earthquake, except that the seismic forces that caused it were always within our control. The city's extraordinary show of sorrow in the days following the shootings was, to my mind, a sublimated fear of random death and a form of horror about how far we had allowed the civic discussion in our city to tilt toward the extremes. How could a person so sick be so roundly ignored that he could so easily inflict such extraordinary pain?

The show of sadness was appropriate and necessary. But a more-uncomfortable discussion now needs to be more out in the open. The talk of healing and hope goes nowhere if no lessons are to be drawn, or no real improvements are made in our collective destinies; if the root causes are covered up—and this profane occurrence is allowed to be categorized as the "isolated act of a deranged gunman." That is the worst kind of distortion.

Events never happen in a vacuum. No man is an island, not even Jared Loughner.

Comments (5)

Add a comment

Add a Comment