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The Hard Answer to Why it Happened in Tucson

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The easy answer to the recent shooting in Tucson would be to say it's Arizona's loose gun-control laws that let it happen, that if maybe the NRA-loving Conservative Cowboys in the Wild West would keep it in their holsters, young Jared Loughner wouldn't have been able to ruin his own life and senselessly end the lives of many others.

Maybe, the easy answer goes, if one couldn't pick up bullets at Walmart, if someone had to be screened for "mental illness" before purchases, blood would not have to have been spilled on the newly-poured concrete. Ambulances wouldn't have to have traveled fast through the mountain-shadowed streets to the strip mall with the requisite grocery store/drugstore/liquor store in the part of town where the vast parking lot is still at least half filled with wildflowers and Mesquite trees.

But the real answer, the real reason, lies somewhere far deeper, deep in the square adobe structures and the small brick ranches where Tucson's citizens reside. The answer lies in a kid's brain, a place where right and left are ideally both used, where conservative or liberal aren't choices that matter, but where coming to a perfect middle ground seems totally, utterly impossible.

I grew up in Tucson, in that strange place without grass except where people cheat and use too much water, in the only state that doesn't change its clocks, the one that once put a stop to a day off honoring Martin Luther King, the one that recently had the nerve to acknowledge that a whole slew of its residents (granted, the illegal ones) don't have rights.

I don't know Jared Loughner, but I do. I knew many lost boys like him growing up in the dry arid desert, bright sensitive boys with easy access to booze at every strip mall and to drugs that came quickly, quietly over the border from Mexico just 45 minutes away.

If what I've read is true, Jared was incredibly smart. He read what he could get his hands on, maybe from a local library like the one I sat in for hours. I kept my reading proclivities to myself mostly, like Jared. I read in the long branches of trees at recess if I wasn't picked for Dodgeball on the basketball court that doubled as a square-dancing area during Rodeo. I can almost taste the dirt in the pancakes served up on long black griddles that made it feel like summer in the spring.

The servers were parents, escapees from the East and Midwest who donned cowboy hats and bandanas around their necks for the occasion.

Jared, I imagine, felt by turns powerful and powerless as any bright kid does, as I did when I visited the impressive copper-domed state capitol building in Phoenix one field trip and met young U.S. Representative John McCain. I might have asked Mr. McCain the same question Jared posed to Gabrielle Giffords the first time he met her, when he stopped to hear her out, to see whether or not she had any chance of saving him from a lonely, isolated fate where there doesn't seem to be a friend for miles, and might actually not be.

"What is government if words have no meaning?" he is said to have asked the rising political star, the young woman with tons of energy and ideas who had the hubris to stand outside a supermarket and preach about an effective U.S. government.

Ms. Giffords' response clearly wasn't enough to break through a lovesick young boy's rock-solid belief that something in the real world had gone terribly awry, that all the words he had read hopefully and might have even believed no longer had any bearing on anything. Ms. Giffords' response was clearly not enough to dissuade Jared that she, God-love-her-if-there-was-one, was a liar if she thought she could help.

It is not an easy spot, selling life as worthwhile to smart, curious, disappointed, disengaged boys, the boys who throw beer cans out of old pickup trucks as they flee the desert party spot when the keg in the back dries up or the wheels of police cars kick dust around their blinking sirens. But they want so desperately to believe.

Jared, it turned out, had alcohol poisoning once, used drugs. Of course he did, I did too. So did and do so very many of our bright hopeful kids when they feel powerless and as abandoned as the old hollowed-out Saguaro on which our mailbox used to teeter at the curb.

There were no sidewalks on my street, I don't know for sure if there are any on Jared's. My guess is not. People have backyards in Tucson, some even their own pools, so communing isn't necessary. A few neighborhoods have recreation centers, but those were often the gated ones, the ones with guard houses.

Time suggests Jared might have "broken with reality" before the shootings, suggests media fervor might have "put him over the edge." Brilliant. Right, and right. His reading list was a compendium of broken-reality literature, filled with fantasy stories like The Wizard of Oz where what you have inside you is all that matters. When reality seems hopeless, the only hopeful thing is to break with it and live in your own illusion.

If there is any answer to "why" a bright, curious, caring, dog-loving kid might take it upon himself to kill people, it is the feeling of being alone and misunderstood, of feeling isolated and afraid. It is a very easy feeling to have growing up in a basin surrounded by the majestic magic of mountains and yet no sense of who and what might help you climb out of it to find the answers you need.