The white-right has been quick to deflect any criticism after the Giffords shooting, including Sarah Palin's appalling, but somehow strategic, use of the term "blood libel." The media have been willing accomplices, as usual. Anyone who has been paying attention since the frightening crowds egged on by Gov. Palin during the closing phases of the 2008 presidential campaign, the staged August disruptions of meetings with members of Congress in 2009 and the Tea Party and all its violent rhetoric and imagery — the connection to the shooting is unavoidable. And, as Pima County Sheriff Dupnik had the guts to say, there is a peculiar accelerant of Arizona political extremism applied to this fire. In the end, however, few minds will likely be changed.
But other factors are at work, too. We can debate and weigh them, but they must be considered.
I've driven by the place where the shooting took place many times. It's one of hundreds of off-the-shelf Spanish-Tuscan-schlock shopping strips with a huge, blazing parking lot plopped down across the state by the Real Estate Industrial Complex: ugly, characterless, dehumanizing and killing of genuine community. The same is true of the endless subdivisions of lookalike tract houses, built around a garage door rather than a front porch. The built environment does influence behavior and souls. It's telling that the attack took place there and not, say, along the Fourth Avenue business district in central Tucson. Most Americans like to believe crime happens in center cities; in reality, much of it, including some of the most hideous murders, occurs in suburbia and exurbia. Also, the 8th District, like most of Arizona, is so lacking in inviting public spaces that this is where Rep. Giffords had to set up her table to meet constituents.
Arizona has filled up with outsiders who know nothing of the state's history. Arizona was created by theft from Indians and conquest (and purchase) from Mexico, but also by heroic acts and mighty deeds. Most "Arizonans" know nothing of this. They came for a cheap house and a resort dream (with championship golf). For the sun, which can do the devil's work on the brain. As I've written before, one consequence is the resort mindset: People check in, they check out, but it's not really home. On vacation at a resort, many people will do things they would never do at home. Unfortunately, what happens in Arizona stays in Arizona, and stays. Among the things most don't know is that the good of Arizona is the result not of "rugged individualism," but of collective effort, compromise and plenty of federal money. The violence of the Old West is much overstated, the cooperation and communal efforts barely known.
Violence is not merely the province of the unhinged or incited by the white-right. It tends to rise when societies become more unequal and reach economic crisis. Both cases apply to America and Arizona. Today's apparent status quo of rule by a swindling oligarchy, the wide gulf between the rich and average workers, deep unemployment and the gutting of the middle class are new phenomena in modern American history. Few states are in as deep a mess as Arizona, and none that are so populous. The ruling Kookocracy's remedy of low taxes and "light regulation" has failed, but it's all they've got, aside from yelling "fire!" in a crowded and seething theater.
As much as we wish it were not so, violence is very much a part of the American soul. Anyone looking for American exceptionalism need look no further. We are often a savage people. The Civil War was only the most extreme example of our capacities. All the reassuring platitudes that the Giffords assassination attempt was an anomaly and "un-American" notwithstanding, brutality runs deep in our history. All of which makes our present situation ominous. What happens when the goodies from Wal-Mart and the cheap gasoline stop? What happens when the stresses of a hollowed-out economy, the costs of empire, climate change, peak oil, etc., and the strenuous efforts to deny them explode? It may not just be the mentally unstable who act out.
President Obama spoke in Tucson Wednesday night. The memorial itself, held in the basketball McKale Center, was bizarre: Part Wildcat pep rally, part churchy Bible reading, part Rotary meeting, way too many speakers. The endless whoops and cheers, even after prayers, reminded that no one seems to know what's appropriate anymore. Thank goodness the conservatives and moral police have been in charge for so many years. I've never seen anything quite like it for such a somber occasion, but maybe I am that far outside today's mainstream. One couldn't help noticing the sour stares at Janet Napolitano from Sens. McCain and Kyl. Although praised by many, the president's speech was ordinary, unsatisfying, and even with the feel-good talk about us being worthy of the little girl's dreams, empty. The man behind the presidential seal was unrecognizable from the candidate who gave such a profound and intelligent meditation of race relations during the campaign. From Lincoln and Kennedy to Reagan, history shows that rhetoric can be a force for good as well as evil. Yet our leaders today may as well be mute. Perhaps Mr. Obama knows the American people are too far gone, or perhaps he's too chained by his banker-minders. The Gettysburg Address it wasn't, or even up to Ronald Reagan's standards as mourner-in-chief.
Finally, I must circle back around to young men and trouble, how the two go together, how the danger is increased in a decadent society where the market and tribal theocracy rule. It's ironic that the phrase "man up" has emerged at a time when men live in a state of permanent adolescence, from their appearance to their behavior, role models and aspirations. Some of this was on display Saturday when Gov. Jan Brewer was introduced to the international media by a man wearing a sweatshirt and bluejeans, looking like a clown, unserious at the most serious of moments, apparently her "communications" director. The very nature of manliness and adulthood has been degraded to the point where the former is code for harshness and the latter for license. Fewer men read books. Fewer go to college. Apparently too often women tolerate this, and to risk a stereotype, it is women who ultimately civilize men and draw them to the better angels of their nature. That such an environment breeds a Jared Loughner is unsurprising, nor that it leaves America unprepared for the difficult future ahead. The therapeutic society will prescribe gun laws that go nowhere, drugs that often make problems worse and the endless search for that vilest of fantasies: "closure." Yet the loss of true adult manhood, along with the responsibilities of citizenship, is a big part of our trouble.
My Arizona is better than all this. But I'm not sure my Arizona still exists.