Tucson, Arizona: It Could Happen Here, and Anywhere


Mary C. Curtis

National Correspondent
Tucson, Arizona, has always held a special place in my heart. It's the city where my son was born 28 years ago. A newspaper job and a sense of adventure drew me farther west than I had ever been and this East Coast gal quickly fell in love – with the desert landscape and lifestyle.

I loved that a place so different from the urban cities where I had lived and worked was still a part of the United States. It proved how diverse America could be. The territory that didn't become a state until 1912 introduced me to the Mexican-American and Native American cultures that helped shape it. Tucson had its own special beauty – from the look and smell of the desert after a sudden rain to the Saguaro cactus sentinels at the edge of what passed for a front yard in my funky home in the Tucson Mountain foothills.

Though we moved after a few years, we returned often to visit the Desert Museum and enjoy the turkey mole and refried beans as only El Torero in South Tucson could make them. My son always referred to himself as a desert rat, happy to tell classmates in New Jersey or North Carolina that he was born in Pima County, Arizona. It conferred a Western cool that set you apart.

What I remembered most was the friendliness of the people and the libertarian streak that accepted each person's quirks and beliefs. It wasn't that people wanted to use the guns they checked at the door. They just didn't want anyone else to tell them what they could and could not do.

And unlike so many other places I had passed through, you didn't have to immediately declare allegiance to any clan or crowd. Like me, most people I met were from somewhere else and settled in Tucson because it felt comfortable.

The city itself seemed to have a live-and-let-live attitude.

Now Tucson is known for something else. Add its name to the grim list of places scarred by an incident of senseless violence. Just as Virginia Tech alumni reunions can't help but be tinged with sadness because of a disturbed man with a gun, the pleasures of Tucson must make way for the pain that is now a part of the desert city.

Among those wounded by a gunman who struck on Saturday morning was Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, now in critical condition. Among the dead are Arizona's chief federal trial judge, John McCarthy Roll, and Christina Taylor Green -- a 9-year-old born on Sept. 11, 2001 -- who wanted to learn how government works.

In truth, the image of Arizona had been shifting for years. The fanciful drama of Tombstone gunfights immortalized in fable and on film has hardened in the past few years into real-life battles over shrinking revenues and border security. The border town of Nogales -- always good for a day of shopping and dinner -- is now labeled in an NPR report as a "no man's land," a city transformed by illegal immigration and drug smugglers.

No one knows what the man carrying a gun to a Giffords event in 2009 had in mind. But after the fractious health-care protests that unsettled the nation that summer, it's a good bet he wasn't there to compliment the congresswoman on her support for the president's reform bill.

Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik's words that the state has become the "mecca for prejudice and bigotry" have themselves set off a debate. But it's understandable that a man aware of the threats and now actions that critically wounded his friend might have an opinion.

In so many ways, Giffords is pure independent Arizona, a proud Democrat who likes to ride her motorcycle helmet-free and is a guardian of gun rights. She was greeting constituents who – in the contrarian way I loved – gave her a win in an election she was supposed to lose.

That Saturday morning meet-and-greet is the Tucson people would like to remember.

And it's gone.

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