Longform

Branded: Can Tucson Ever Live It Down?

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Udall — arguably the most famous politician to come out of Tucson before, now, Gabby Giffords — was a rare breed, not only for Arizona but for Congress, where he represented for 30 years a district that largely included Tucson. He believed it was possible to disagree without being disagreeable. He used humor to get his (typically) liberal point across. Udall makes Giffords look conservative. In fact, she is the more conservative of the area's congresspeople; redistricting ensured Raul Grijalva a liberal spot but gave Giffords the electoral fight of her life last fall — a race more emblematic of Phoenix-area politics. (As is the local Tea Party's decision to try to recall Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik.)

Miller marvels at Giffords' ubiquity, quipping he's pretty sure he's the only person in town who's never met her.

So does she personify Tucson? I ask him.

Sadly, he answers, "She does now."

Joel Garreau, Lincoln Professor of Law, Culture and Values at ASU's Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law, has only recently come to Tucson (and is still just in Arizona part time), but from his East Coast (D.C., to be exact) perspective, he argues that Tucson is pretty well known, perhaps enough to overcome the tragedy, eventually.

"I'd be surprised if the majority of the American people really had never heard of Tucson before," he says, particularly since it's a tourist destination. And, he adds, people remember Tucson from old Westerns.

But that association with the Wild West might be the very thing that does make "Tucson Tragedy " stick hard to the city, argues Elaine Lewinnek, who specializes in cultural geography, among other things, as an assistant professor of American studies at California State University, Fullerton.

"The media, they have to brand something," she says, "And they do often brand things by place . . . Columbine — it just meant a flower before it meant a high school massacre."

Lewinnek has noticed that many recent tragedies known geographically have taken place in the West: Waco, Oklahoma City, Columbine. She doesn't think that's by accident.

"I think it's part of the whole myth of the West . . . This place where people take justice into their own hands," she says, adding that the notion is compounded by Tucson's lack of baggage and, therefore, limited prior associations.

So what do we call this tragedy?

It couldn't be the "Attempted Assassination of Gabrielle Giffords," she says, because no one knew immediately that this was the case.

She adds, "Safeway advertises in so many newspapers" — so it couldn't be the Safeway Shooting.

"Then you think that Arizona politics have been so much in the news," Lewinnek continues. "I think the media response to the shooting was to immediately talk about the media's own role in the shooting."

We can't call it "The Crazy Boy Who Didn't Get Enough Services Incident," she concludes, although we both agree that maybe we should.

And so it will simply be Tucson.

Of all the coverage I've read and watched about the shootings — and there's been a lot — the one piece that struck me most is a letter Suzi Hileman wrote the day after the president spoke in Tucson. She's the woman who brought her young neighbor, Christina-Taylor Green, out on a sunny Saturday to see their congresswoman.

In a piece published January 18 in the Arizona Daily Star, Hileman describes touring the labyrinth of a memorial outside University Medical Center, of hearing that man play the violin and seeing the cards, posters, candles and flowers left for her and the other victims. Moved, she wrote her own love letter to her city, which ends:

I am out there, but I am not alone. You are out there with me, Tucsonans. You, with your teary eyes and your outstretched arms and your healing grace. We are in this together. A madman tried to turn our desert town into a slaughterhouse, and we just won't let it happen. No way.

This is our melting pot, our cultural stew, our place to be ourselves under the warmest sun and atop the driest earth. We have the Catalinas, the Santa Ritas, and Pusch Ridge, and we have each other. As Dr. King, President Obama, and many of the signs we read last night said, we must choose hope over fear, civility over anger. Sharing the evening with you, exchanging hugs and smiles and tentative outpourings of emotion, I knew, once again, that Bill and I have chosen absolutely the right place to be just now.

I love you, Tucson, just as much as you love me.

Fondly,

Suzi Hileman

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.