Politics as usual in a city struggling to come to terms with its grief

As Americans mourn a national tragedy, they have also been grappling with hard questions about their ideological divide

David Usborne
Wednesday 12 January 2011 01:00

On the street corner just outside Gabrielle Giffords' constituency office, a helium balloon slips its moorings and zigzags into the dusk sky. Passengers on a bus turn all at once, faces pressed against the windows to glimpse the scene: flickering candles, flowers and stuffed toys cram the pavement in the immediate vicinity.

Grief is a unifying force. Two days after the shooting that gravely injured the congresswoman and killed six others, Tucson residents are coming to this spot in a steady flow, to say their prayers privately, to add their own offerings to the roadside shrine or to write down their thoughts on a slip of paper provided before dropping it in a message box in the hope Ms Giffords will soon be well enough to read it.

These are people like Michelle Foutz and her sister Susan, 38, who, like others, has surrendered to tears. They would have come sooner, but Susan was in Costa Rica when the shooting happened. She recalls how empty she felt when television stations there at first reported that the congresswoman had died.

The emotions of everybody here are an open book. They are in mourning even if Ms Giffords herself is still alive. Neil Brandon, 56, has wet cheeks, too, and holds a photograph of his wife, Hang Pham, embracing the congresswoman when she showed up at the Raytheon weapons plant where they work to support a strike in 2007.

"I am just sad is all I can say," Mr Brandon says, a finger wiping an eye behind his glasses.

Tucson, home to the University of Arizona and the Wildcats basketball team, has taken a punch to its gut. Like no other time in recent memory, everyone who lives here feels compelled to unite.

Barack Obama is coming but the time for politics is not now, because politics are partly to blame here. Aren't they? And there we are – a point of contention. Everyone here on the corner of Swan and Pima seems eager to believe that to be the case, that the nasty politics of Ms Giffords' re-election campaign here last year and the incendiary rhetoric of commentators and some national leaders are somehow to be blamed for what happened. Is that the feeling of everyone in the city and in the state? Not if you scrape a little deeper. Or listen to talk radio.

Take Donna, who called in yesterday to the Jim Parisi show on KBOI Radio, The Voice. How wonderful to see Democrats and Republicans coming together for the swearing-in of the new state legislator on Monday, she says. That's unity we need. But there is just one thing she wants to add. How about that sheriff?

That would be Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, who, after the shooting, not only agreed that the coarsening of political discourse was part of the problem, but then suggested it was especially so in Arizona, a state that had "become the Mecca of prejudice and bigotry". While he was at it, Mr Dupnik, a Democrat, rehearsed the case for stronger gun laws in the state that he called "the Tombstone of the United States", in a reference to the gun-and-holster justice of the old wild west.

On talk radio at least, Tucson's grieving has already more or less been pushed aside by argument. And fury. Callers were outraged at the left's suggestion that anyone aside from the suspect himself, Jared Loughner, should be blamed for the atrocity. "These are the same people who say that video games are to blame for kids who go and commit violent crimes," rages an indignant Dominic. (It is first names only in talk-radio land.) And the sheriff comes under vigorous attack. "There is just something wrong with a man coming out and saying such nasty things about our state," says Donna, one of many to take that view.

The assaults on him are coming now from the state legislature too. Representative Jack Harper, a conservative Republican, says maybe Mr Dupnik should be in the dock over the incident, because he failed to provide protection for the congresswoman at her event on Saturday. "If he would have done his job, maybe this wouldn't have happened," Mr Harper says. As for gun laws, Mr Harper would scrap them altogether. "When everyone is carrying a gun nobody is going to be a victim," he explains.

Back at the congresswoman's office, a young intern, Jonathan Kalm, is gathering all the flowers that are scattered around the car park and adding them to the makeshift shrine on the street corner. It is not the right time to ask him why these arguments can never stop, even in these days of tragedy.

But Minerva Carcano, the United Methodist Bishop of Arizona, says: "Truly, I am very grateful to Sheriff Dupnik for having the courage to address what is happening to our politics across the country. It is our culture that affects the actions of our young people. It is a factor and we must recognise it."

The debate must be had, grieving or no grieving. With that she folds the message slip she has just completed, drops it in the box and turns to go home.

The lawyer: Defender of America's most infamous

Judy Clarke

To scholars of criminal law in the United States, there is nothing surprising about the Arizona Public Defender's office reaching out to Judy Clarke to stand in as the lawyer for Jared Loughner, the 22-year-old now being held without bail and facing charges of murder and attempted assassination.

Sometimes known as the "patron saint of criminal defence attorneys", Ms Clarke has more experience than anyone in representing defendants who are unpopular nationally because their alleged crimes are especially depraved or heinous. Her client list reads like a list of America's most infamous rogues.

Based in San Diego and seen also as a fierce opponent of the death penalty, Ms Clarke served as an adviser in court to 9/11 co-conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui (though technically he represented himself at his 2006 trial).

She went on to serve as defence counsel to Susan Smith, convicted in 1995 in the drowning deaths of her two children; Theodore Kaczynski, also known as the "Unabomber", whose devices over 20 years killed three people and injured 23 more; and Eric Rudolph, known as the "Olympic Park Bomber".

Ms Clarke made her debut appearance with Loughner at his first formal court appearance in Phoenix on Monday. She was formally appointed to represent him by the court. While she waived the right to have a bail hearing, she did make a petition that no Arizona judge should preside when Loughner comes to trial because among those killed on Saturday was John Roll, a federal judge in the state.

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