After tragedy, life in Tucson goes on. But the city is changed.

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By Sari Horwitz
Sunday, February 13, 2011

TUCSON

Gabrielle Giffords is in Houston, recovering from her devastating head injury. Her husband, Mark Kelly, is planning to take command of a space shuttle mission. The headlines they had dominated have given way to the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.

Life moves on - even in Tucson. The shrines of flowers and rosary candles are being dismantled. The pristine golf courses are filled with winter visitors. The funerals that marked life here for two weeks are over.

But it will be a long time before this desert community puts behind it, if it ever does, what happened in an instant on a sunny Saturday morning in front of a supermarket.

On that day, at La Toscana Village strip mall, I peered past the police tape at the blood-smeared sidewalk and the covered bodies of the victims. I knew I had to focus and ask questions. I had to file a story. But I also had to stop for a minute to process my breaking heart.

Nineteen people, including a 9-year-old girl, a federal judge and a member of Congress, had just been gunned down in my home town.

In more than 25 years as a reporter, I have seen the unspeakable many times. I wrote about the slaughter of 32 students inside their Virginia Tech classrooms. I reported on the random shootings of 13 people in the Washington area by two snipers. I have covered countless murders of youths on the streets of the District.

But I never expected to see this kind of tragedy here in my safe haven. Tucson was where I hiked with my husband on the trails of Sabino Canyon, the desert oasis in Coronado National Forest, and where I rode horses with my daughter near Saguaro National Monument, amid the cholla and ocotillo cactus. Here I breathed the clean desert air, especially intoxicating after a rain, filled with the aroma of creosote and sage. Here I drove 15 minutes out of town to Gates Pass to watch the spectacular deep-purple and magenta sunsets and then marvel at the big, starry Arizona sky. This was my city, a blend of Native American and Mexican culture, where the sun shines more days a year than anywhere else in the country.

The world is filled with cities that are touched with senseless violence. And after the streets are swept clean, life goes on. People go back to work and to play. On the surface, it appears as if nothing really changed.

But something has. Extreme acts of violence affect the psychological and social fabric of a community in subtle but important ways. The place where residents have felt safe doesn't feel quite so safe anymore. Insecurity creeps in. Anxieties rise.

I was here on the morning of the shootings visiting my mother, who moved to Tucson with my father in the 1950s. A childhood friend called to tell us she'd heard that Giffords had just been shot. I called The Post and then, on instinct, as if I were still on the D.C. crime beat, raced to the scene - just two miles away.

In the days that followed, my home town was transformed into a national media spectacle, complete with a camera-ready headline: "Tragedy in Tucson." Famous television anchors flew in and set up with my beloved Santa Catalina Mountains as their backdrop. Reporting the story was strange. It felt uncomfortable calling old friends for help and reaching out to Giffords's rabbi, whom I'd known since she was a teenager, to urge her to share her experience at the lawmaker's bedside.

Growth and development had long ago changed Tucson. At the end of roads where there was once only desert, there are expensive sprawling homes, luxury resorts and strip malls, like the one where Jared Loughner pulled out his Glock 19. Making my way around Tucson, a flood of childhood memories came back, but now superimposed on them were images from the bloodbath.

So, too, it is with those who live here. Their lives go on, but in ways big and small the city they call home is not quite the same as it was before.

Tucson has become the latest chapter in the narrative of American violence. The news recedes as other chapters are written, but outsiders will remember when they come to Tucson what happened here. Nobody goes to Dallas or Columbine and forgets what happened there. Tucson, "the old Pueblo," is the home of the Wildcats, the best Mexican food north of the border, and endless sunshine and saguaros. Sadly, it will also always be the place where a mentally unstable 22-year-old tried to assassinate his representative, killed six Tucsonans and stripped a community of its innocence.

Sari Horwitz is a reporter with The Post's investigative unit.


© 2011 The Washington Post Company

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