Author Tom Zoellner Ably Analyzes the Tucson Tragedy

Arizona, the youngest of the 48 contiguous states, turns 100 years old on February 14. A more somber anniversary is on this week's horizon: one year since January 8, 2011, when 19 people, including U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, were shot during a Congress on Your Corner public event at a shopping center on the north edge of Tucson. Six of the victims died, and Giffords is currently in rehab, making near-miraculous progress after a bullet passed through her brain, causing severe physical and cognitive impairments.

The final week of 2011 saw the publication of A Safeway in Arizona: What the Gabrielle Giffords Shooting Tells Us About the Grand Canyon State and Life in America, a deeply personal book about the shootings by Tom Zoellner, an Arizona-raised author and former newspaper writer. Zoellner has known Giffords and her family since she was a state legislator (for the record, Giffords and her family were not involved in the research for this book, nor was Giffords' husband, Mark Kelly), and he returned to southern Arizona to work on her 2006 Congressional campaign. He's been critically recognized for his books about diamonds and uranium, receiving The American Institute of Physics' 2011 Science Writing Award for the latter.

In Safeway's 11 chapters and 263 pages, Zoellner ably recounts the documented events of that horrible morning; he then expands the focus to several of the social factors that are inextricably woven into the tragedy and Americans' reactions to it. In particular, he both analyzes and shares his perceptions about such special Arizona circumstances as sprawl, land booms, gun worship, urban isolation, and sketchy support of public mental healthcare.

Zoellner builds credibility (and earns the reader's trust) by acknowledging his unavoidable subjectivity while he presents his findings with the factual support of exhaustive research. His confessions about his own outsider adolescence in the desert suburbs are especially poignant and astute; they evoke the self-doubt, passion, and loneliness that every teenager believes are his alone, along with the cynical contempt we all feel, at least briefly, for the place we're from and want to get the hell out of.

Most successful people pass through that dark, bitter phase. The paths out that we discover are as diverse as we are. Zoellner found that the guise of "journalist" made it easier for him to talk to people and gave him a sense of purpose. Underneath the book's narrative lies the premise that, not unlike delusional shooter Jared Lee Loughner, Arizona remains arrested in its journey to functional maturity: It hasn't finished growing up. For readers who aren't yet familiar with the state's history, political climate, and economic trends, there's a lot of solid information here that helps explain why our relatively young society is packed with recent arrivals with short memories, pioneering individualists who trust no one, and opportunists eager to start over and milk our growth for what they can in the short term.

While investigators generally have concluded that Loughner, who has been diagnosed schizophrenic while in custody, wasn't directly motivated to violence by radical conservative thought and media (nasty-spirited though they can be), Zoellner still decries the climate of rudeness and extremism that suffuses public discourse. He adroitly acknowledges the rise of fear-based decision-making in the wake of 9/11, scapegoating of undocumented immigrants, and the heyday of public figures like Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio who've ridden those hot topics to international infamy.

Because most people who are assaulted and killed by others are the victims of people they know, it's natural and tempting to think that, when a friend or loved one is the victim of a stranger, the whole incident could have been prevented somehow. In reality, Loughner's pathology likely would have eventually led him to harm someone even if he hadn't made it to Giffords' meet-and-greet last winter. Better gun laws might merely have decreased the final tally. And, even though Arizona desperately needs better mental health services in general (see New Times' "Shadow Dwellers" series), we should probably think twice before implementing Minority Report-style profiling to discover which contentedly psychotic people are a potential danger to others.

In his search for someone or something to hold responsible, Zoellner overreaches from time to time, most noticeably in a chapter that segues from an overview of how Loughner reached young adulthood in the grip of serious mental illness to an examination of the political talk-radio phenomenon in general and the work of Tucson station KQTH ("The Truth")'s Jon Justice (né Logiudice) in particular. Given that Zoellner cites listenership for any 20 minutes of Justice's show at 8,450 of Tucson's 836,000 people over 12 years old (based on Arbitron ratings data), the influence of the program is a questionable factor.

However, as Justice frequently states, "It all plays in." And while he intends that catchphrase to encompass all the tendrils of liberal, freedom-destroying conspiracy that he's morally compelled to explain to his listeners, Zoellner points out (perhaps too subtly) that right-wing extremists can't have it both ways — in other words, talk radio is itself part of something more significant than a couple of people arguing during morning drive time. It's a funhouse mirror that not only caricatures the divisiveness of the ideological conflicts it reflects but also focuses and fuels them, outlining issues in a misleading monochrome that renders them simpler and, in an often disturbing way, more inspiring.

Overall, A Safeway in Arizona's exploration of its issues is appealingly candid and thought-provoking. What could be a long slog of dry background information is skillfully structured to read as a fresh account of crucial events that made a lasting impression on the teller. Zoellner's perspective on this state and what we've made of it, as well as Giffords' enviable relationship with most of her constituents, constitute a gripping story that presents a side of the whole mess you're not likely to find elsewhere.

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Julie has written for the Night & Day events calendar section since 2005. As a student at Arizona State, she received the Glendon and Kathryn Swarthout Creative Writing Award and the Theatre Medallion of Merit.
Contact: Julie Peterson