As the nation faces the first anniversary of the tragic shooting in Tucson on January 8th, Tom Zoellner's stunning new book, A Safeway in Arizona: What the Gabrielle Giffords Shooting Tells Us About the Grand Canyon State and Life in America, will not only stand as a heartfelt memorial to his native city, but a groundbreaking and enduring investigation for a national readership of the very questions that few writers or observers are willing to ask.
"There will be lifelong consequences for Jared Loughner," Zoellner writes about the disturbed 22-year-old assailant in his conclusion, "but there are also consequences for all of us that cannot be ignored."
In truth, few understand those consequences as well as Zoellner, whose close friendship with Giffords compelled him to return to the very desert neighborhood and strip mall of his disquieting youth on the suburban outskirts of northwest Tucson and ask some hard, if not, dangerous questions.
A veteran investigative journalist and the nationally acclaimed author of Uranium: War, Energy, and the Rock That Shaped the World and The Heartless Stone: A Journey Through the World of Diamonds, Deceit and Desire, Zoellner has masterfully taken on the thankless and unenviable task of reclaiming the Safeway shooting tragedy in Tucson from the banter of TV pundits, radio shock jocks and tabloid headlines, and then methodically sorted through the overlapping layers of crime and culpability to provide one of the most important social portraits of a conflicted Arizona -- and nation.
Unabashedly committed to Giffords, but painstakingly attentive to the fact that the horrific shooting left 18 people injured and 6 people dead, including Giffords aide Gabe Zimmerman, the first congressional assistant to be murdered in the line of duty, federal court Judge John Roll, 9 year-old Christina-Taylor Green, and retirees Dorothy "Dot" Morris, Phyllis Schneck and Dorwan Stoddard, Zoellner sets out an ambitious literary framework to take the tragedy beyond the endless political debates and anonymous arches of a "shadow of an actual village" and place the shooting within broader medical, cultural, political and historical contexts.
Was Arizona's peculiar oxygen in some way responsible for the decision of a twenty-two-year-old man to go down to the grocery to assassinate his congresswoman? And was it "incomprehensible" that such a thing could have happened in Arizona at a time of social and economic unease? The question cut to the bone about what the state believed about itself as it prepared to celebrate its one hundredth birthday, and at a particularly delicate moment.
Zoellner never hides his admiration of Giffords, which dated back to a casual encounter at an Arizona Town Hall gathering of politicos at the Grand Canyon and blossomed into a deeply personal friendship rooted in their Tucson haunts. Both were native Arizonans on a clear path to success; Zoellner, as a reporter for the Arizona Republic, Giffords as a rising star in the state House of Representatives. Both moved on. Zoellner even credits Giffords for a crucial nudge to leave behind a successful newspaper career and pursue his own literary dreams. He felt the need to return the favor.
Throwing his journalistic protocol to the wind in 2006, Zoellner joined Giffords' first campaign for Congress as a volunteer coordinator in Bisbee, a once vibrant mining town near the U.S.-Mexico border. Zoellner stomped the back roads with Zimmerman in the hope of making "our flawed state just a hair's breath better."
That hope almost ended on January 8th, 2011, when a young man from Zoellner's nearby neighborhood unloaded 30-odd rounds of bullets from his Glock 19 semi-automatic pistol into the crowded experience of democracy called Congress on the Corner.
As one of the most surprising aspects of the book, Zoellner provides an insightful, humanizing, albeit disturbing, look into Loughner's troubled and increasingly deranged life -- including his suspension from Pima Community College and a formal recognition of his potentially violent tendencies -- that tipped on January 6th, when Loughner's family in Tucson received a robocall with a recorded message: "Hi, this is Gabby Giffords. Come to Safeway tomorrow and tell me how we can make government work better for you." Within hours, Loughner was camped out at a roadside Motel 6, surfing the internet for famous American assassins. The next day he developed photos of various poses in a red G-string, his Glock semi-automatic in hand. He bid his friends goodbye in a message on MySpace. And then he caught a cab to Safeway.
Ruminative by nature, investigative by training, conflicted by the contradictions of a disconnected community paradoxically committed to common people and mutual interests and the protection of individual liberties, Zoellner recognizes one expert's admonition to not dismiss the murders as a random act of mental illness and dredges the lethal combination of both the madness and twisted anger of Loughner's schizophrenia and the breakdown of social contracts and relationships, gutted mental health care policies, lax gun laws, and the polarizing atmosphere of the state in deliberate and at times riveting prose.
Wisely, Zoellner doesn't offer any glib answers or political rants, but challenges readers to consider ways in which Loughner's act -- and future tragedies -- could be averted.
Looking back at the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, one executive noted that Dallas "was not the inevitable site for a Presidential murder, but it was a logical place for something unpleasant and embarrassing to happen." Just as Dallas didn't kill Kennedy, Zoellner notes, "Tucson" didn't kill six people last January, "but contexts must always be taken into account, because events are otherwise meaningless."
While our nation may still be far from understanding this tragedy -- and Loughner's own trial has yet to come -- Zoellner's deeply moving, illuminating and original work has brought us closer to giving it meaning to our own lives, and our future.