When I arrived in Arizona last March, my bones were still practically numb from the snowiest winter in the modern history of my native Northeast. There was radiant sunshine that made the Valley of the Sun feel like a warm soaking bath, bordered on my far horizon by New-Age red rocks and big sky -- natural beauty that inspired awe for me as it surely once did for so many new arrivals over so many decades. I didn't travel to Phoenix to witness beauty, unfortunately, but to get an up close look at anger. I didn't have to look far. In fact, it found me.
I stumbled into raw political rage on a bright and blue Saturday afternoon, in a most unlikely place -- an upscale shopping corner in the tony suburb of Scottsdale, where about 200 or so members of a local Tea Party had gathered to honk horns and wave signs against President Obama's health care plan, just hours before the House of Representatives voted to approve it. Some of the protesters were gathered in front of the sleek turret for a glitzy American Apparel store, while others were across the street outside P.F. Chang's Bistro. But what stayed with me about the scene in Scottsdale was not the incongruous, "Brooks Brothers riot" nature of it all, but the level of personal vitriol, not just toward Obama but toward Scottsdale's soon-to-be-booted Democratic congressman, Harry Mitchell. At least one of the protest signs depicted Mitchell as tarred and feathered.
I got out and met one of the Tea Party protest organizers, a woman named Judy Hoelscher. What happened next, I recounted in my recent book, The Backlash: Right-Wing Radicals, High-Def Hucksters and Paranoid Politics in the Age of Obama:
Hoelscher said she was busy raising her three children when she decided shortly after Obama took office to join the Tea Party and also to start a blog called Angry Right-Wing Housewife, which features a rendering of a stern-looking homemaker brandishing her rolling pin. "It was the way...the stimulus bill, I felt, was nothing more than a slush fund and they were spending my children's future, and it's not fair." Like the others who've taken to the streets. Hoelscher is steamed this day about health care but isn't happy with illegal immigration, either. "Our state is going broke because of the illegal immigrants," she claims. Behind her, the honking and the shouting at Harry Mitchell and Barack Obama is reaching a deafening crescendo.
A few days after all the sound and fury, Representative Mitchell reported that people were calling his office and even his home and making death threats. One recorded message from a woman who called his office said: "I cannot tell you how much I wish a panty bomber would just come in and (bleep)ing blow your place up."
Welcome to paradise. Indeed, it doesn't take much time in the Arizona desert, or a lot of shoe-leather reporting, to see how the nation's 48th state had become the undisputed No. 1 in vitriol and bile. Just in the remarkably short time I was in the greater Phoenix area last March, the newspaper was full of stories about a bill in the Arizona legislature -- that turned out to be SB 1070 -- that would be so harsh toward undocumented immigrants that its sponsors openly admitted to make the streets so hostile to Mexicans that they would leave. On Saturday, I saw campaign volunteers swoon to get Sheriff Joe Arpaio to autograph a pair of the pink underwear that he makes his immigrant prisoners wear in the brutal desert heat to humiliate them. On Sunday morning, I rode past fathers and sons cheerfully walking to a spring-training game in Tempe so I could meet a Baptist minister named Steven Anderson who told me that Obama "deserves to die" because the president supports abortion rights, and over lunch a Tea Party leader calmly told me that Mexicans want to reconquest Arizona up to 16th Street in Phoenix and "kill all the white people." While I was on my way home to Philadelphia, there was the death threats against Mitchell, and when a militia leader called for Tea Party activists to break the windows of House members who voted for health care, some responded. In Tucson, at 2 a.m., someone shattered the window of a congressional office, possibly by firing a pellet gun, belonging to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
Is it any wonder that they call Arizona the Grand Canyon State? When news bulletins first flashed on Saturday that a congresswoman had been shot at a public event, it didn't take too much imagination to correctly surmise that it was Arizona, and that the victim was Gabrielle Giffords. Nor were you shocked, as some clearly were, when Pima County sheriff Clarence Dupnik declared his home state to have become "a mecca for prejudice and bigotry." The grim, blood-soaked crossover from death threats and broken windows to actual murder and mayhem seemed inevitable. But why here, in such a naturally blessed, sun-soaked corner of God's earth.
In 2011, the state is coming to represent a violent revolution of rising, and failed expectations. For much of the last generation, Arizona was held out as a promised land -- for retirees looking to write the closing chapters of life under heavenly skies, for immigrants who would meet the bottomless demand for hard work, for families looking to raise their kids into this thriving and up-and-coming economy, buoyed by boundless real estate and low taxes. It seemed too good to be true, and it was. By the time I got there in March 2010, it was clear that Arizona was the place that the American Dream went to die.
Entire subdivisions were unfinished and half-empty, victims of the housing bubble. The immigrants from Mexico who once flooded the Home Depot parking lots to get picked up for day labor were not only unable to find work, but they went from backbone of the Arizona economy to scapegoats, blamed (despite studies to the contrary) of taking jobs and draining services. Those retirees spent mornings on the golf course but afternoons inside the bubble of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and vitriolic local radio hosts like once and future GOP candidate J.D. Hayworth, and fear and anger sizzled like an egg cracked down on a desert highway. Government was useless -- closing rest stops on the interstates and farming out the prison system to inept contractors rather than truly balancing the budget.
The real factors behind this Arizona Nightmare -- venal banks, too much borrowing, too much outsourcing of jobs that, unlike home construction, would have been permanent and stable -- were too abstract, especially for the toxic soup of talk radio. It is tragic how a state that once prided itself on Barry Goldwater-style can-do self-reliant libertarianism devolved into blaming The Other the minute that things went south here. Virulent anti-immigrant nativism -- occasionally sprinkled with things like neo-Nazism -- grew into the desert, as did fear of Muslims, to the point where an architecturally unusual new Christian church in Phoenix had to declare in a giant banner that it was not Islamic. Political heroes were now those like Arpaio who didn't just pursue reactionary policies but actually heaped humiliation and degradation on The Other, in sweltering outdoor prison camps. Ditto with members of Congress suddenly out of step with the new zeitgeist -- moderate Democrats like Harry Mitchell and Gabrielle Giffords were not just to be disagreed with but to be physically threatened with vandalism or worse. Meanwhile, guns became a statewide obsession, as lawmakers competed to see just how lax an environment they could create, where it was legal to bring concealed firearms just about anywhere.
This was the world that surrounded and buffeted a disturbed young man in Tucson named Jared Lee Loughner. It is difficult to understand the gibberish of Loughner's Internet postings, and hard to understand where he fits into this disturbing picture. But whatever the uniqueness of Loughner's mental illness, there is too much that is familiar about his isolation in an Arizona subdivision -- his inability at age 22 to find a meaningful job or education, and a libertarian state's inability to do anything for someone the community had understood was in need of mental treatment and help. And when Loughner finally lashed out, his target was a politician. How could that surprise anyone -- when such anger against the world of politics is now baked into the dry, hot air over Arizona?
In just the three days since semi-automatic gunfire shattered their world and ours, there has already been so much debate about whether Loughner and the shooting are products of our toxic environment or just the handiwork of "a lone nut," and whether that means the Pima sheriff was out of line with his pointed and powerful assault on prejudice and bigotry. But is it really necessary to tie Loughner into the broader body politic to prove what we as Americans should already know instinctively: That when eliminationists are targeting members of Congress with rocks and stray bullets and tar and feathers and a minister is praying for the death of the American president and when a state decides as an entity to profile and harass human beings because they have brown skin or because their religion is different, that things have already gone way, way off the tracks. We should have seen this long before 10 a.m. Mountain time, on the fateful morning of Jan. 8, 2011.
It's time for Arizona to turn off the radio and its cable TV sets, come out of its air-conditioned homes, and begin to see each other as human beings again -- to see leaders of an opposing political viewpoints as debate-club adversaries and not enemies on an apocalyptic battlefield. It is time for Arizona to re-dream the American Dream and maybe re-invent it in the process, to see that immigrants and retirees and everyone else in the polyglot that is the American Southwest just want bigger slices of a tamale pie that all can share, and not to fight each other over the crumbs. And when they come out of their homes to do this, Arizonans should also see what it's like to leave the handguns at home for a change.
All of us would give anything to go back in time, to undo Saturday's carnage, and to bring those six magnificent souls back to life. We can't do that, but maybe Arizona can dust itself off, gaze into the splendor of its big sky and see what an outsider sees, and remember what it was that brought them all to this scenic corner of America in the first place.