“What is government if words have no meaning?”

— Jared Lee Loughner

The Arizona legislature closed its first session after the Safeway shootings having deemed the Colt Single-Action Army Revolver the official state firearm and cutting $510 million from the state’s health care budget, including services to the mentally ill. It also attempted to make it legal to carry a gun without restriction on a college campus, a bill vetoed by [Governor Jan] Brewer, who said the language was too ambiguous and might have made it legal to carry a gun onto a high school campus. There was almost no discussion at all about reforming the state’s starving mental health network.

— Tom Zoellner

PROMISING IN HIS AUTHOR’S note to A Safeway in Arizona that, having used the tools of journalism, he will “arrive at a few conclusions,” journalist Tom Zoellner further offers that his personal biases make this ambitious and deeply moving case study cum memoir something other than “objective journalism in the traditional sense.” For this readers should be grateful, and for Zoellner’s bravery in taking on the subject at all. I’ll get to the book’s main conclusion — a simple if sincere recommendation that readers behave as the impossibly brave and open-hearted Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords herself, with empathy, respect for others, selflessly — but just to say up front that as a personal friend of Giffords the author no doubt hesitated writing at all on a “subject” that could be seen as exploitative. 

But who better than an Arizona native who’d watched the story develop? Who better than a once alienated kid from the neighborhood grown up to be a reporter who’d covered state politics for years, a talented veteran writer who, tragically, got a story assignment from Fate he could not refuse but clearly needed to write. The shooting, the state, the lives of assassin, reporter and Congresswoman provide a context, a reflection, an instructive exaggeration of the “national posture” — poor posture indeed — and the chance for one man to organize it. Zoellner imagines, as his clumsily vulnerable subtitle indicates, that the shooting one year ago in Arizona can indeed tell us something about what he calls the “American disaster tableau.” In so involving its author in the book — a meditation, finally — the reader is invited to find herself, himself. To take it personally. 

A Safeway builds on an all-too-necessary Chekhovian narrative arc. Hung on the wall in the first act, the handgun, a Glock 19, goes off immediately. But it never stops going off, ricocheting, and hitting every problem that defines what’s wrong with the 48th state of the Union. The socio-political-historical survey is both subverted and amplified by the sound of Loughner killing and wounding, and killing some more. To reach, too easily, for the other available literary allusion, Zoellner holds that story to our heads, forcing us, as the old lady in the short story, to be good, and not just angry or sad.

“What is government,” asked the arguably apolitical killer, native Arizonan Jared Lee Loughner himself, “if words have no meaning?” He really did ask the question of Giffords years earlier, in person, at another public forum. It is a reasonable one, hard enough to answer if you are sane, what with “death panels,” “socialized” medicine, Kenyan birth, a candidate simultaneously vilified for being in the grip of a Black Marxist Christian minister and being a closet Muslim. It might be appreciated as objection to the deterioration of discourse and lack of civility, if turned terrifying and miserable by a sick man-boy with a weapon and the opportunity to use it on innocent people. 

And what is government as against gun culture? Zoellner visits a shooting range with a resident who routinely carries multiple concealed weapons — legally — because carrying guns, the fellow explains, allows him to experience life in a heightened state he calls “Condition Yellow,” described to Zoellner as “just a little more alive, a little more mentally primed, a little more observant of the expression of those strangers around you.” It would be a mistake to confuse this “condition” for, say, empathy. The gun-toter imagines that his concealed weapon affects strangers — his fellow citizens, he claims, divine that he’s packing invisible heat and so refrain from aggressive or violent behavior. This is a familiar thesis, that armed citizens make us all safer. But this gunman (to offer a more aggressively inclusive take on that tired word) goes farther, explaining to Zoellner that he wishes he “had been there at that Safeway.” 

That Safeway was, of course, the iconic site of the shooting by a mentally ill gun owner experiencing his own heightened state, taking six lives and wounding thirteen, among them the US Representative who happened to be Zoellner’s friend. The attack’s anniversary came and went, almost nobody embracing an opportunity to talk gun control, not in an election year. Instead, California Republican Assemblyman Tim Donnelly — Tea Partier and booster of the failed anti-California Dream Act Initiative — was stopped at Ontario Airport with a you-know-what in his bag. Apparently Donnelly timed out of his own heightened state. (He carried, he explained, due to threats to his safety by — wait for it — Mexicans trying to kill him because he opposes financial aid for their college kids. Right.)

Difficult, of course, to respond to the premise offered by Mr. Condition Yellow and difficult to ignore the politics of bigotry that elected Donnelly, who got parole and a fine. But let’s try. Sincerely. I’ll cease with the easy revolverum ad absurdum long enough to recall what we have agreed to call another “mass shooting,” this one in Irwindale. It occurred at a So Cal Edison facility where three people were, to use a phrase no one has agreed on: publically executed. That attack came two months after the killings, shootings, executions in Seal Beach at, of all places, a hair salon. Citizens respond to these and myriad other murders with mourning, memorials, stuffed animals, flowers, tributes, prayers, and vigorous prosecution of the surviving madman. An all-too-familiar scene. Do not even supporters of liberal handgun laws anticipate a tipping point, welcome or not? Will the real horror and grief experienced by Irwindale, Seal Beach and Tucson and, yes, Sanford, Florida and the vicarious horror and grief experienced by the rest of us ever — to get to my point — cause us to finally actually do something?

Such action would result, conceivably, from the adoption of a public program of not just weeping and shaking our heads — or, as I am constantly tempted to exercise, easy sarcasm and anger — but of collective preemptive empathy. Empathy is the project of democracy or, as the activist and public intellectual Cornell West preaches, justice, which, he says unshyly, is what love looks like as expressed in public life. Tom Zoellner argues that this was exactly the project of the moderate Democratic representative, for whose election Zoellner himself worked twice. He admired, even loved her, for being both a remarkable and generous individual and an exemplary elected official who inspired Zoellner with her personification of “a better citizenship than I’d ever had before: a deeper version of citizenship; an attempt to take ownership of our problems and make our flawed state just a hair’s breadth better.” 

Here’s the problem. Everything Zoellner writes, and writes well, in A Safeway assumes as desirable and necessary this vision, this practice of citizenship, of civic intellectual curiosity, of empathy, of “telling” as witness, and, finally of the appreciation of context which, he insists, “must always be taken into account, because events are otherwise meaningless.”

Especially in Arizona, with its laxest gun laws in the country (no permits required, concealed carry allowed), anti-tax retirees, diminished mental health services, cuts in public education, soulless just-add-water suburban real estate tract homes, the notorious anti-immigrant SB 1070, weird right-wing elected officials including “America’s toughest sheriff” Joe Arpaio and the perpetually flummoxed Governor Jan Brewer. Behind it all, and loud, the bullying and uncivil corporate AM shock talk backlash against the election of the nation’s first Black president, the ascendancy of the Tea Party and the privatization of nearly every element of everyday life, all of it adding up to a case study in “systematic loneliness” and a dearth of real community, reinforced in poll results from the optimistically titled Center for the Future of Arizona: only 12% believe the people in their community care about one another, not to mention those embracing the supernatural powers of concealed weapons.

A Safeway argues, carefully, that the attack on one particular elected official was connected to the larger attack on government, on community, on democracy that these facts about Arizona portend. In a glaring illustration of an alienated, atomized, impoverished corporatist culture, citizens desiring to meet a congresswoman (or kill her) gathered in a commercial supermarket parking lot, the lowest common denominator of consumer life rather than in a public schoolhouse, seniors center, park, or any such temple of democratic self-governance. Fine. This has been pointed out in other books, with familiar denials by the Right, pooh-poohing from media, and impotent shrugging from liberals. The challenge of Zoellner’s quietly remarkable book then is the ambitious demand of its author that we learn from this massacre to embrace the Other, as he himself tries to do, and as he perceived Giffords did. This is a tough pill to swallow. 

Zoellner raises the stakes on what might otherwise be only another liberal critique. His book is a personal plea for radical empathy, because the achievement of a democracy is empathy, nothing less. He shoots right past wise-ass political anger like mine to a more ambitious if, I am inclined to believe just now, nearly impossible ideal, one where generosity and justice and reasonableness and, yes, love prevail. He depends on the admirable if bewildering assumption that our shared appreciation and understanding of our full context will, indeed, bring meaning. And that finding meaning is desirable, moving us toward empathy. Empathy trumps the purposeful, well-armed meaninglessness it replaces. It is not much to ask for, to work for. It is too much. But it is all there is.