I have a radio version of this essay available through PRX.
Saturday, January 8th, 2011. 11:30 AM. Traffic on North Oracle is backed up, but it isn’t rush hour. The silver winter light glitters on windshields. Our car engine murmurs quietly beneath the soft whoosh of the heater fan and we sit in a bubble surrounded by other Tucsonans who are doing the same. Up ahead, red and blue flashes from police lights accent the windshields and, while everyone is curious, nobody pauses to gossip with their automotive neighbors. An officer in a reflective neon vest diverts traffic off the road. There must have been an accident. Or a shooting.
The Pima County Sheriff’s Department has the entire block cordoned off, closing the main north road for almost a mile. Traffic oozes onto side streets like blood forced through narrow, plaque-clogged arteries. In the Safeway Plaza to our right, blood has been flowing fast and free but, in the quiet stillness of our car, we are insulated from this knowledge. We have no idea that our congresswoman is still clinging to life after taking a bullet clear through the skull.
A mile to the north, the Village Bake House is packed with Tucsonans buying sandwiches and cookies. Despite the store’s artisan French breads and nostalgia-inducing name, it is hardly a quaint hub of local culture. Instead, like most businesses in Tucson, the Village Bake House is located in a bland strip mall that surrounds a huge parking lot like a crust on bread. Inside, a line stretches from the counter as people gaze at laminated menus. There are no regulars lounging around with coffee and newspapers; the hard, straight-backed chairs and isolating configuration of tables encourages a focus on eating, private conversations, and quick departures. Yet, despite the lack of community, Jared Loughner’s killing spree is sufficiently traumatic that a few people in line do something uncommon: they begin talking to each other.
“Is Giffords alive?” one woman asks. “My fried was in the shopping center and she just called me… they think she’s dead,” another responds. Everyone within earshot looks queasy, but the front of the line is still moving. A patron who didn’t hear the conversation says: “I’ll have a turkey-cran and a tall Americano.” The moment passes and the conversation fades away as patrons disperse to their individual tables. We will learn more of the details from the radio in our car and gain insight from televised pundits beamed into our living rooms from Washington and New York. We do not need our neighbors for this information. We do not value their opinions—and how could we? We barely know who they are. In all probability, we won’t even run into them at the Village Bake House next week.
This is what we know: a smirking gunman with thirty-one bullets and a mental illness shot 19 people, six fatally. The shooter’s ostensible motivations are too insane to merit discussion, so we have attempted to frame his act in a way that is both easy to comprehend and dismiss. Jared Loughner was crazy, we say, invoking biological determinism to suggest that deranged shooters are a statistical constant in our population, an assumption that comfortably excuses us from responsibility. We are aghast at the shooting, but unwilling to step back and examine the broader social problems illuminated by the muzzle-flash of gunfire.
But there are larger problems revealed by the shooting and we would be foolish to dismiss the incident as a short circuit in the brain of a madman. Despite Loughner’s mental illness, his actions took place within a cultural context, a fact that is breezily swept aside by many commentators who offer us variations on the platitude “correlation is not causation.” True, Loughner’s actions cannot be directly traced to one social issue or another, but his thoughts grew from our common cultural soil and his behavior was shaped by law and the subtle regulation of social pressure. Denying the role of culture in Loughner’s behavior is as rash as dismissing a cancer cluster downwind of a pesticide plant. Our world is a complicated tangle of variables, but our inability to fully comprehend them does not justify the simplistic thinking encouraged by the phrase “correlation is not causation.” Context matters, even for the insane. Anyone seriously interested in deterring tragedies such as the January 8th massacre should be willing to entertain this idea.
It is striking that politicians and pundits have avoided discussing the relationship between the shooting and our sense of community—or, more accurately, between the shooting and our absence of community. At "Together We Thrive," the memorial attended by President Obama in Tucson, University of Arizona president Robert Shelton proclaimed that Tucson is a community “in the truest and best sense of the word.” This is reassuring, but it is also wrong: Tucson is a disjointed collection of individuals who have little common history and are split along the fault lines of race, language, and class. Tucson’s lack of community may be extreme, but most cities face similar issues. While Tucsonans have drawn together in the wake of Loughner’s massacre, this closeness is fleeting, like the national solidarity following the September 11th attacks. Tragedy can create short-lived communities of grief, but it is important to separate this type of community from the durable bonds of genuine community, the kind of bonds that only develop over time. By carelessly using the word “community,” we distract from a much needed conversation about how frayed our social fabric has become and how this affects our day-to-day lives.
Arizona is a particularly striking example of weak community bonds due to its tremendous population growth since the Second World War. In 1950, three-quarters of a million people called Arizona home, a figure that has exploded to six and a half million today. Coupled with this growth, Arizona’s overheated real estate market created a statewide game of musical chairs played with families and homes; neighbors one day could be flipping their property the next. The US Census claims that average Americans only stay in the same residence for a paltry 5.2 years and we Arizonans are an especially rootless bunch. The state is also home to a large population of part-time residents who winter in the Southwest but are often emotionally vested in other areas of the country. Second generation Arizonans are rare—third generation Arizonans are practically exotic. This mobility makes it especially difficult for community to form. If you expect to move across your town, state, or country next year, it does not make sense to invest in neighbors, volunteer for service organizations, or engage in the other activities that create social ties. This problem is exacerbated when you assume that your neighbors are equally likely to move away. For many Americans, the place they live is not their home. This problem is writ large in Arizona, but it is hardly unique to the state.
Our transient mentality has both political and social repercussions. Politically, it encourages a focus on the short-term—it is irrational to pay taxes for services that you will never use. In Arizona’s case, this is manifested in the concentration of state resources on immediate concerns such as roads and law enforcement and a willingness to cut funding for projects that yield delayed results, such as education, services for the mentally ill, and preservation of open space. Only a state with a short-term political mentality would sell its capital building to a private owner and then lease it back.
Socially, transience creates a loose collection of individuals rather than a community. Our networks are global rather than local, making us more likely to relate to people living thousands of miles away rather than down the street. The speed of Arizona’s growth has made its cities a vast suburban landscape that, in its very structure, encourages isolation in cars and single-family homes. Billboards lining Arizona’s freeways promote these suburbs as “walled communities,” “gated communities,” and “active adult living communities,” titles that cynically exploit our sincere desire for community in order to sell us a lifestyle that alienates us from each other. With progressively more shopping taking place in isolated strip malls and through the internet, we have even lost regular contact with salespeople and have little chance of casually running into our neighbors at the store. We come together at work, school, church, or for an occasional recreational activity, but these micro-communities fluctuate constantly and seldom overlap. Most of the time we are alone in a desert of strangers, and if it is hard to care about strangers, it is harder to trust them. Arizona is often regarded with a mixture of awe and disgust for its weak gun control, but should this surprise us? Guns assuage fear, and fear is easily developed in an environment that lacks trust.
For the sake of argument, let’s consider what might have happened if Jared Loughner had been born in a different Arizona, one where residents had deep roots and planned to remain, one where people knew each other and talked. Citizens of this Arizona might have been willing to allocate tax dollars to mental health services that would have detected Loughner’s illness at a young age and funded his treatment. At the very least, people in this Arizona might have trusted each other enough to regulate the types of guns on the market and the conditions of their sale.
On a less political level, how would Loughner’s behavior have differed in an extremely close community? Let’s imagine him living in a small town in the 1850s. In this context, everyone would have known about his instability: family, extended family, neighbors, businessmen. Instead of festering alone with an internet connection and moving unnoticed through a world of strangers, our 19th century Loughner would have been continually surrounded by people who knew him, shared their observations about his behavior, and used constant social pressure to keep his ideas in check. And if they could not keep his ideas in check, a deranged outburst in one place would have had ramifications everywhere. Gossip can have value. The local merchant would refuse to sell him a gun, not out of policy, but because everyone knew that you didn’t sell guns to Jared. Established communities do more than allow us to support each other and share information, they also make us accountable for our behavior to people we know and respect. While not a cure-all, community accountability is a powerful force that makes us behave responsibly. Our merchant would not have sold Jared a gun partly because he doubted Jared’s sanity, but also because everyone in town would have held him accountable for the sale.
These thought experiments are not intended to glorify the past but, that said, people in the 19th century would find Loughner’s style of barbarism inexplicable: a self-destructive attack on multiple strangers motivated by no reward, vengeance, or ideology. Even Charles Guiteau, the madman who assassinated President Garfield in 1881, was motivated by a single—albeit imaginary—wrong and focused his attack on one target. Jared Loughner is a lunatic, but he is something more. He is a lunatic in a social context, a lunatic born into a world where the social bonds between us have become increasingly weak. Mental illness has existed throughout history, but attacks on all of society are a creation of the 20th century, a century that saw an unprecedented rise in mobility and decline in community. Loughner’s crime is the act of an insane person who was surrounded by people but was socially alone, like his fellow murderers who struck Columbine, Virginia Tech, and the University of Arizona’s Nursing College. We can dismiss his behavior as an isolated act, but we do this at our own risk. By separating Loughner’s rampage from its cultural context, we allow ourselves to dodge hard questions about the value of community, its loss, and how we can start to rebuild it.