The book I was reading when the Newtown massacre occurred was Tom Zoellner’s A Safeway in Arizona: What the Gabrielle Giffords Shooting Tells Us About the Grand Canyon State and Life in America (Viking, 2011). The author is a fifth-generation Arizonan, long-time friend of the congresswoman, and journalist (Arizona Republic and San Francisco Chronicle) turned professor of English (Chapman University in Orange, California).
“This book,” he says, “is an attempt to make sense of a fundamentally baffling event. I have used the tools of journalism to arrive at a few conclusions. Several personal biases—explained within the text—make this not a work of objective journalism in the traditional sense, though I have striven to be fair to all concerned.”
One of the strengths of Zoellner’s analysis is that he presents a detailed portrait of the man who did the shooting that injured Giffords and twelve others and left thirteen people dead. His pathology and personal responsibility for the crime are not explained away by social conditions and other factors related to time and place.
The ongoing public discussion of weapons and public safety needs to be equally insistent upon maintaining this emphasis. People who do violent acts are personally responsible and have to be treated accordingly.
Zoellner’s analysis also shows the close connection between the pathology of the shooter and the social conditions within which he lived. While the social conditions did not cause the pathology, they provided a narrative for the distorted sense of reality that his illness induced.
Zoellner provides an outline history of the settlement of Tucson and Arizona, emphasizing developments from the 1930s onward. He quotes Arizona state historian Marshall Trimble: “We closed ourselves off; we built a wall around ourselves.”
Zoellner adds his own interpretation: “These physical settings were matched by a consequent decline in the old American values of community.” He illustrates the impact of these developments from his own near-pathological youth in one of these heartless subdivisions.
This book also shows how the media, with talk radio an important factor, cultivate a growing sense of paranoia throughout the community and at the same time radicalize political processes.
Because Zoellner’s book deals with the Giffords shooting, the contributing conditions in Arizona are prominent throughout the book. As his subtitle indicates, however, he sees similar processes taking place across America. No matter where we live, social conditions can lead to deadly actions by people whose personal pathologies are pushing them toward vigorous action.
The tone of the book is especially well stated in a paragraph of page 259. It starts with these lines: “To wash our hands of an errant citizen like Jared Loughner—to push him away and think of him like a natural disaster that nobody could have stopped—is to engage in the worst kind of denial about the human influences that made him who he is, especially in the four drifting years before his final violent act.”
After naming some of these influences, Zoellner concludes the paragraph: “A set of environmental conditions was in place that made such an extreme act of superhero individualism within the range of possibility. Loughner was not a tornado or an earthquake; he emerged from a specific human context.”
What should we do to reshape the social context so that it is less likely to lead to mass shooting of innocent people? Zoellner offers a list of eight possibilities that could make a difference in Arizona (pp. 260-261). Each is phrased as an “if clause.”
Two of the eight focus on weapons, including the first: “If there had been…a law in Arizona that required just one hour of safety training before a handgun could be purchased, Jared Loughner would never have acquired the Glock.”
Five possibilities deal with public attitudes and policy, including number three: “If more listeners realized that partisan talk radio is not a genuine public policy forum but a money-oriented business designed explicitly to attract an audience through gross exaggerations and invented grievances, elected leaders would not be so easily vilified and thought of as subhuman.”
The final “if” clause calls attention to the need to provide adequate treatment of people with pathologies: “if the state of Arizona could adequately fund its infrastructure for taking care of the mentally ill instead of pushing that basic public responsibility onto untrained private citizens, there would be a diminished likelihood that Loughner and unknown others like him could cause such immense damage and misery to innocent people.”
Zoellner closes with the hope that Arizona will take up these issues that “transcend politics” and become an example to the nation. Now that Newtown has reactivated the nation, it’s time for all of us to enter into the discussion.
And churches, I believe, should be one of the venues for the conversation.