The evening of January 8, Tucson marked the one-year anniversary of last year’s tragic shooting with a vigil on the mall at the University of Arizona. Funerals and memorial services for individuals had long passed, and the vigil was mostly a community celebration of healing, remembrance, and resilience in the face of violence and death. Congresswoman Gabby Giffords embodied this spirit, rising to the stage with her radiant, childlike smile and bright red scarf. Her energetic recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance drew chants, cheers, and even tears of goodwill from the crowd. Other shooting survivors and family members participated in a candle lighting ceremony. A local symphony and choir performed, and the Band Calexico, reportedly a longtime favorite of Giffords, sang “The Crystal Frontier.” At one point, on cue, the crowd transformed into a swaying ocean of blue glow sticks in the darkness.

One featured speaker was Doctor Peter Rhee, chief of trauma at University Medical Center and the surgeon directly responsible for Giffords’s impressive health care in those first terrifying days. “Tucson would not and should not be defined by that shooting,” he said. “Our response has shown the world how much we care for each other.”

Judging by his immediate audience, Rhee’s statement seemed not just optimistic, but believable. I stood there in the chilly evening among a few thousand onlookers who all mingled, and then stood, for at least two hours–outside gates that separated us from the media platform, from seats for the guests of honor, from the stage and the JumboTron. Folks were friendly and patient. We circulated plastic bags filled with blue wristbands imprinted with the motto, “Be Civil.” The night’s single collective, if muted, growl came when Governor Jan Brewer’s name was mentioned as she sent her regrets, through a proxy, for “not being able to make it.”

What exactly do “we” and “each other” mean in Tucson? As an interested outsider who’s made three intense pilgrimages in the past six months, I was finding the pronouns less easy to parse than perhaps intended.

I was not alone in my questions about unity. Writer and Arizona native Tom Zoellner caught heat for suggesting something similar in his thoughtful book, A Safeway in Arizona, released the same week. The people he interviewed reflect that Tucson is regrettably not yet a place where people really get to know their neighbors.

The physical experience of the city embodies this social disconnection in a large-scale disjointedness. You don’t have to dig far in chat rooms for people to complain that Tucson is difficult to cross in a car. (Make the drive yourself, and you’ll see what they mean.) I overheard one café patron complain that even without rush hour on weekends, “snowbirds” (temporary winter visitors from the northern states) get up early and clog the roadways anyway. Neighborhoods feel more like pockets of housing loosely threaded together by thriving, surviving, marginally dilapidated, or frankly boarded up strip malls alongside patches of desert and dry riverbeds. Apartments and homes are boarded up, too, many tagged with graffiti. Street art, in the form of wall murals throughout the city, offers some relief.

Like so many suffering places in America, Tucson has wounds that remain open and untended, no matter what ceremonies we participate in, or what speeches we listen to. One longtime resident who loves Tucson for its “350 days of sunshine” also stressed to me that it was “an easy place to hide in,” with way too many potholes that go unfixed.

Sunshine clearly doesn’t shine light on everything. As in many other American cities, the most vulnerable people in Tucson don’t draw much media attention, especially national attention. The Arizona Daily Star ran a story the week prior to the shooting anniversary, pointing out that 9-year old Christina-Taylor Green (now a household name because of her death) was only one of eight victims of child homicide in Tucson last year.

And then there was Jared Loughner, an underemployed and mentally disturbed college dropout, who easily slipped through the cracks in a state with slashed mental heath resources (a problem alluded to publicly by Giffords’s husband, Mark Kelly, at the vigil). Complicating this dynamic were Arizona gun laws that afforded Loughner arguably over-easy access to a Glock 19 and all the ammo he wanted.

Spend any time in Tucson and find displaced and disheveled people wandering. Single men or men in pairs, sometimes with dogs or deflated backpacks. Occasionally women alone with shopping carts or empty strollers cross into the middle of busy streets. There are plenty of tired-looking folks crowding busstop benches. According to statistics from 2009 (most recently available), 23.4 percent of residents in the city limits live below the poverty level, compared with 13.2 percent nationally. Unemployment has decreased slightly this year, from 8.8 percent in July to 7.6 percent in November (just lower than the national average). In the last year alone, the city’s foreclosure rate jumped from 39th to 19th highest in the nation, with Arizona having high foreclosure rates overall. Republicans in Arizona are famously anti “Obamacare,” even as health care access statewide has been a travesty, with over 1 million residents uninsured in 2010–19 percent of the total state population. Medicaid cuts statewide have had brutal consequences, too.

The weekend was filled with memorials and healing events for families, way more than one person could possibly attend. At the crack of dawn on Sunday, twelve hours prior to the vigil, I attended a bells distribution at Ben’s Bells, where kids and their parents were encouraged to sign “kindness pledges” before they took handmade bells into the city in preparation for a citywide bell-ringing at 10:11 A.M., to commemorate the time when Loughner fired his gun. I was able to pick up free stickers and temporary tattoo prints that said “Be Kind” and “Keep Tucson Kind.”

I missed the cross-town bell ringing because I went from Ben’s Bells to a “Crossroads of the West” gun show at the nearby Pima County Fairgrounds. There I was promptly invited to join the National Rifle Association and also forbidden to take photographs. While the timing of the show might have been rhetorically unfortunate, it was not unique, either: lingering billboards in town still advertised local gun shows from both November and December.

Besides, the gun show was a modest assembly of small, regional vendors–nothing compared to the federally-funded hardware of national defense weaponry that has been part of Tucson’s landscape for half a century. In a way, one could see how independent gun owners’ suspicions about “big government” could be reinforced by routine flyover exercises from billion-dollar planes located at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. During the Cold War, the land around Tucson became home to eighteen Titan II ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles) silos. Since dismantling due to treaty, only one silo has been fully preserved as a museum, so that visitors can descend to look the 9 megaton warhead, now a giant inactive bullet, right in the face. (Other empty silo bases are actually up for sale.) The tour guide makes sure to tell guests that the Titan II was the guardian of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), never to be deployed unless the United States had been fired upon. He also says that the person turning the key would never know the name or location of the target if ordered to deploy the warhead. The climax of the tour is a simulated missile launch, where a child is often put in the control seat and awarded a card after successfully turning the red key that rings a bell throughout the bunker.

For nearly fifty years, Tucson has also been the site of a massive boneyard for weaponized aircraft–some waiting for makeovers, others stripped for parts. To tour the boneyard is to get a shocking, visually impressive, and ghostly reminder of both the physical and financial toll of our nation’s investment in war. The top private employer in the city is currently Raytheon Missile Systems. Second place in this category goes to WalMart, where Loughner bought his bullets.

After the gun show, I attended an interfaith ceremony at St. Augustine’s Cathedral where I sat in the back, among mostly Hispanic congregants who must’ve wondered (as did I) why we heard songs and prayers in English, Hebrew, and Arabic, but not Spanish. Then again, maybe they didn’t wonder. The Arizona schools chief had threatened the previous day to gouge $14.3 million from Tucson Unified School District, the state’s largest district, unless it agreed to drop an ethnic studies program by June 2012. For a city barely one hour’s drive from Mexico, with nearly one third of its population Hispanic, with the immigration/deportation/assimilation/personal identification debate a continued source of state anxiety and political contention, discomfort with Spanish in Tucson must feel simultaneously bizarre and familiar.

After the interfaith ceremony, members of the media followed city leaders, clergy, and family members out of the church. Meanwhile, a homeless man slept in his cave of blankets on the doorstep of a building at the corner of church property.

I remembered that homeless man later on that night at the vigil, when Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett shared what it was like to see his new grandson in an intensive care unit. Praising the team of doctors, nurses, and specialists responsible for his care, Bennett urged the crowd: “The message I’d like to share is that…we all need to show a little more intensive care.”

Less than a month since the anniversary, we now await the results of Loughner’s mental health report to discover whether a judge will extend his current stay at a federal prisoners’ hospital in Missouri past February 8, or whether Loughner’s own path to mutually assured destruction will soon be paved by a death penalty trial.

Also less than a month since the anniversary, Congresswoman Giffords has announced her resignation. In a moving moment prior to his State of the Union Address, President Obama embraced her. As at the vigil in Tucson, Giffords’s glistening eyes and luminous face seemed to capture people’s most elemental hopes for recovery and endurance. Not surprisingly, the President went on to bookend his national address by urging citizens to work as a better team. But Obama’s primary example was not a team of military doctors or healers or rescuers, not a team of bomb diffusers or chemical weapons dismantlers, not a family of survivors, not a town scraping its way back from the dead–but the team of specialists who killed Osama Bin Laden.

The layers of meaning here say less about any single person, or one city, than about how our discourse intersects with daily lives on the ground. Deep problems of conscience linger in our language choices, in our image systems, in our local and national budgetary priorities, in blindspots of the stories we tell, and retell, each other. How do we define success, and how do we model strength? These are not obtuse questions, and Tucson helps to raise them all: “Be kind” or just “be civil”? Leave citizens to fend for themselves, or construct and maintain a social safety net? Build more weapons or stack them in the boneyard? Ring the bell or shoot the bullet?

Sometimes we want both, and at the same time. The trouble with “we” in Tucson is the trouble with “we” in America.

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JO SCOTT-COE is the author of a memoir in essays, Teacher at Point Blank (Aunt Lute Books, 2010), selected by Ms. Magazine as a Great Read. Her writing on intersections of education, gender, and violence has appeared in many publications including the Los Angeles Times, Swink, Ninth Letter, Hotel Amerika, River Teeth, and Fourth Genre. She received a Pushcart Special Mention in 2009 and Notable Essay listings in Best American Essays 2009 and 2010. Her conversations with essayist Richard Rodriguez and novelist-poet Margaret Atwood have appeared in Narrative. Find Jo on Twitter, at her website, and at the Writer Ninja Podcast, now available on iTunes. She is currently at work on a new book, Tripwires and Trigger Fingers.

4 responses to “Between Bells and Bullets: The Trouble with “We” in Tucson”

  1. Jo I really enjoyed this. I am from Tempe but was born in Douglas and spent countless hours on the highway in between the two. Tucson really unfolded before me on a visit a year ago, when I went to parts of the city I had never been to before.

    As a native the Giffords shooting was such a dark day for me. As a native. I grieved for my state.

    I feel your piece captured so much of your city. Tucson is impossible to capture in one pass. Like many cities. Thanks.

  2. A lovely, thoughtful essay. You do a great job letting the images speak for themselves and drawing broader strokes — all without becoming polemic or judgmental. I hope others will hear this message.

  3. Summer Block says:

    I really appreciated this, especially as I used to live in Tucson when I was a child. Thoughtful but not judgmental, nice work.

  4. JSBreukelaar says:

    Balanced and researched and topical. Important work here. I especially liked the gun show section. Chilling. Thanks Jo.

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