A year ago this weekend Tucson, Arizona was at the center of the world. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a vibrant up-and-coming moderate Democrat, was shot during a saturday morning meet and greet with her constituents at a Safeway store a mile or so from where we retreat whenever we can from southern Idaho’s winter inversions. Six other people who were nearby the Congresswoman that day, including a nine year old girl and a respected federal judge, died. Many others were injured.
Those events just a year ago seem as though they happened last week, and at the same time, they seem – our attention span being what it is – like ancient history.
In Tucson, a genuinely civilized place an hour north of the Mexican border, seemingly everything might have changed and regretably perhaps very little has changed over the last year. Gifford’s remarkable recovery from her brain injury that awful January day seems to me a miracle. She’ll appear with her husband Mark Kelly at a candle light vigil memorial service on Sunday. She is still a Member of Congress, undecided on whether to seek another term in a swing district that both parties would love to have come November. A moving ceremony was held in the Catalina foothills this week to dedicate a monument to one of Giffords’ young staff members, Gabe Zimmerman, who did not survive the attack. A series of other activities are scheduled to mark the events of January 8, 2011.
The Tucson community seems, in many respects, committed to remembering, and finding a way forward from, what is widely called The Event. The University of Arizona, for example, has established The National Institute for Civil Discourse and former Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush are the national co-chairs.
Still, as the Tucson Weekly notes, so much about the shooting remains either a mystery or unresolved a year later. The shooter, a deeply troubled young man, continues to be evaluated as he waits to stand trial. The passionate discussion in the aftermath of the shooting about the desperate need for better mental health services in Arizona and the nation seems to have passed quietly away. The determined calls for calmer and more civil political discourse, calls that seemed so sensible in the wake of January 8, have been overtaken by another political election cycle that is destined to dump millions of dollars– maybe more – into the dissimination of some of the nastiest, most anonymous political attacks in the history of the republic. Sensible ideas about keeping weapons from the potentially deadly hands of the mentally ill are unthinkable as subjects for debate in the presidential election campaign. The Congressional newspaper, The Hill, reports that security concerns in Congress have largely given way to a return to business as usual.
Life in America goes on and so does the peculiar kind of American death that visited Tucson a year ago.
Last month, according to FBI data, 1.5 million Americans acquired a hand gun. A female U.S. Park Service Ranger, the mother of two young daughers, was shot and killed days ago at a roadblock in Rainier National Park in Washington. The shooter was an Iraq war veteran. Last fall, a mentally troubled faculty member at the University of Idaho shot and killed one of his students. Six police officers were shot, one killed and two are still critical, during a drug raid in Utah in the last week.
Americans have embraced wars on drugs, illegal immigration, radical Muslim terrorists, even wars on cancer and heart diesease, but no war on gun violence. Washington Congressman Norm Dicks, a proponent of a sensible and extremely limited policy to ban guns from the national parks, says such a move, limited as it would be, is impossible given that the “NRA (the National Rifle Association) has a majority in the House and the Senate – that’s the reality of it.”
No tragedy, not Gabby Giffords’ wounding and six deaths in Tucson a year ago, not the senseless murder of a Park Service Ranger, not massacres at Virginia Tech University or Fort Hood, can cause the nation’s leaders to even pause and consider a better course for guns. The public policy response to American handgun violence is simply non-existent and the candle light vigils will continue, year after year.
The Arizona events are remembered this weekend with deep sorrow and with the peculiarly American response to such senseless violence – hope for a better future. Hope, regrettably, is not a strategy. A candle light vigil, as important and heartfelt as it will be, is not enough.
The Tucson dead, nine-year-old Christina Taylor-Greene, Judge John Roll, Dorothy “Dot” Morris, Phyllis Schneck, Dorwin Stoddard and Gabe Zimmerman, along with all the other victims of our unique epidemic of gun violence, deserve to be remembered every day, but they deserve better from their leaders, as well.