The charm and violence of Tucson

Colleagues pay tribute to wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords during the president's State of the Union address as the Arizona lawmaker begins the next phase of her recovery at a rehab facility in Houston.
By Larry McMurtry
Thursday, January 20, 2011

TUCSON

The shooting of 19 innocents in Arizona, one of them a girl only 9 years old, brought forth a flood of commentary, raising questions not easily answered about the possible effect that overheated political invective might have on the least stable elements of the body politic.

The least stable element in this case was 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner, who allegedly used a Glock semiautomatic pistol with an extended magazine to kill six people and injure 13 others. It is remarkable that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, with whom I once shared a flight, and found delightful, is breathing on her own after a bullet traveled through her brain.

Crazies, of course, can show up anywhere. Who would have thought, when Seung Hui Cho registered at Virginia Tech, that he would end up killing 32 people in 2007? The community, in that case or this, cannot be blamed. The conservative governor of Arizona, Jan Brewer, leapt to the defense of Tucson last week, well aware that if the city should lose tourist dollars, it would soon be broke.

What can be blamed, however, is the foolish absence of reasonable firearms legislation, which Brewer refuses to seek. In Arizona you can carry a concealed weapon without a permit. Loughner bought his Glock with the extended magazine at Sportsman's Warehouse, a quite respectable business. I have bought guns in Tucson with minimal screening.

When it comes to speech, politicians can spout pretty much anything. What effect does this have on behavior? The once-revered sheriff of Pima County, Clarence Dupnik, said at a press conference in the aftermath of the shootings that he thought it probably had a bad effect. Free speech or not, he said, it has consequences. The sheriff went on to say that he feared Arizona was becoming a "mecca for prejudice and bigotry."

Dupnik has been elected eight times; few residents of Pima County can remember a time when he wasn't sheriff. He has been roundly criticized for his strictures about rabid speech. I thought that he was magnificent and his point obvious. Ask the Indians and the Mexicans; the latter are usually referred to as "illegal aliens," though none of them comes from outer space.

Dupnik is accused of being hard on Tucson, though he wasn't, particularly. I have lived in Tucson for most of the past 30 years and I love it. The barrio is elegant; there's good adobe; the Mexican food is excellent, particularly on the south side.

But I wouldn't call it easy, and I wouldn't call it safe.

Tucson takes its character from the border, and the border is a problem - all the way from Matamoros, which is across from Brownsville, Tex., to Tijuana, across from California; 114 miles of Giffords's highly polarized district lies on this border.

To see what I mean, drive west out of Tucson on Highway 86, to Ajo Way, 120 miles or so to the town of Why, Ariz. Why, indeed. You will seldom be out of sight of Border Patrol buses or helicopters, picking up groups of immigrants, not "aliens," who huddle in the cactus until they can be loaded. On Ajo Way car wrecks are frequent; the convenience stores sell memorial crosses.

It was from Tucson, in 1871, that the perpetrators of the Camp Grant massacre - more than 100 Apache women and children were clubbed to death - set out, and it was in Tucson that a hundred of the killers, at the insistence of President Ulysses S. Grant, were put on trial and acquitted in 19 minutes. The killers stole 27 Apache children, only six of whom were returned. This border has always been cruel.

In tourist Tucson you miss all this. The city does possess some Sonoran charm, though I would not call Sonora particularly safe, either.

The folks who run Tucson naturally do not want it compared to Tombstone, a mining community that, like other mining towns in Arizona, has always been hard. Tombstone, on Oct. 26, 1881, was the site of the most famous gunfight in American history - an accident, really. The three available Earp brothers - Morgan, Virgil and Wyatt - plus their friend Doc Holliday, merely wanted to run the troublesome Clantons out of town. But someone panicked, and the balloon, as we now say, went up.

Even so, only three people died, whereas Loughner alone accounted for six in the foothills of the Catalina Mountains.

I expect, and hope, that Dupnik will survive in office. He is too experienced and too gutsy for Pima County to lose. I don't expect that our political speech will get any softer. Sarah Palin has attacked journalists for suggesting that violent speech might provoke violent action - but mightn't it? We don't know for sure. I also doubt that Jared Lee Loughner fired 30 shots into a crowd outside a Safeway because he had a particular gripe against one of Giffords's policies. He did it because he was crazy and he could get a gun.

Larry McMurtry, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, is the author of 30 novels, including "Lonesome Dove," "Terms of Endearment" and "The Last Picture Show." He lives in Tucson.


© 2011 The Washington Post Company