TUCSON, Ariz. — Roses and satin hearts on a sea of candles evoke the Diana vigil in Hyde Park. Cameras linger on tearful faces, and correspondents ask, “How does it feel?” in a dozen accents. This might be Gaza or Grozny.
In the 1960s, I left a backwater cow town to parachute with the pack into world-defining stories oceans away. I came back home from Paris this week to find the gang is all here.
One lone lunatic with a grudge is hardly Srebrenica. And yet as in most scenes of mayhem we cover in distant hellholes, Tucson today reflects deep societal sickness.
As Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik said, political vitriol drives the unbalanced to extremes. And just about anyone can buy the firepower to murder en masse.
“The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous," Dupnik said. “And ... I think Arizona has become sort of the capital.”
True enough. To a reporter who grew up here, whose first real job was covering Tucson for the morning daily, there is much to trouble the spirit.
Outside the university hospital where Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others fight to survive, sweeping simplicities blur reality. This is neither Tombstone nor Wisteria Lane.
To a large extent, a small-town sense of community survives in a metropolis approaching a million inhabitants.
Hundreds stand solemnly in the chilly darkness around an expanse of glittering candles, many in glass holders painted with an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
On a fuzzy crimson teddy bear, a Valentine-shaped note reads, “You will always be in our hearts and never be forgotten.” It is signed, “Reyna Gallegos, 10 years old.”
Small American flags dot the offerings. A cardboard sign reads, “To the media personalities who promote hateful speech and imagery (you know who you are), Stop It.”
Joe Machado, a shy 44-year-old real estate broker who teaches spiritual healing, led 100 people in prayer. Heads bowed, each with a candle, they hummed, “Amazing Grace.”
Later, he expressed his shock to an Al Jazeera TV crew that had hurried up from Mexico City.
“This is the last thing I would ever imagine happening here — ever, ever, ever.” Machado told me. We recalled a tolerant Tucson: open-hearted, broad-minded, and multi-racial.
Nearby, “Terra Susan” had an opposite view. The quote marks are because she fudged her real name. Being black, she said, she is afraid to speak out publicly.
Susan, 25, came from Baltimore to work as an industrial engineer. “I found Tucson full of hatred and bigotry,” she said. Someone, for instance, told her that that African-Americans ought to be lynched.
“Friends say I should move back to Baltimore,” she said. “There you know when and where you might be killed. If you deal drugs, you can lose your life. If you’re an upstanding citizen, you’re in no danger.”
Tucson’s reality, as everywhere, falls between the extremes.
I watched a graying man, eyes rimmed red, add yet more flowers to the candle-lit heaps. He was Jozsef Kota, a space researcher who lived through Hungary’s ugliest days under communism.
He said he is careful not to read too much into an isolated tragedy. But having fought for freedom in the shadow of an Evil Empire, he knows crisis when he sees it.
Kota came from a system where divergent political views had to be expressed in secret. Perfectly sane dissidents could be locked away as crazy people.
Now, as an American, he sees zealots use free speech and mass media to spur the violent into action. Real crazies go unnoticed. “These guys can get guns so easily,” he said.
Lots of Europeans hunt, Kota observes, but few climb clock towers or storm school lunchrooms to spew automatic gunfire. Not many go postal for unfathomable reasons.
This is partly because most other societies have more family structure and social discipline than we do. But mainly, it is because they sell only long-barreled rifles and sporting pistols.
This is not Columbine. Jared Lee Loughner targeted a charismatic leader who seeks common ground as extremist politicians and pundits beat steadily on their drums.
Today, the talk of Tucson is gun control. But those who know the place well hold out little hope.
“If you want a gun, you’ll get it,” Jesus Ortega said when I stopped off at his place, Rosa’s, for my ritual re-entry enchilada.
And he is right, of course. On the way, I passed an enormous billboard for yet another gun show at the Pima County Fairgrounds.
I went to one not long ago. For $3,000, no questions asked, I could have taken home a 50-caliber sniper gun that can blast a Safeway parking lot from a mile away.
Like it or not, the larger issues are no less complex than all those other stories the pack rushes to cover in places few of us can pronounce.
Carl Robinson, an Australian who was my Associated Press colleague during the Vietnam War, put it simply in a post about the news from Tucson:
“I reckon America needs a massive Pacification Program.”