At the beginning of his new book, A Safeway in Arizona: What the Gabrielle Giffords Shooting Tells Us About the Grand Canyon State and Life in America (Viking; 276 pages), Tom Zoellner provides a disclaimer: he admits to harboring “several personal biases” with respect to the book’s subject matter. We learn, however, that these biases are completely appropriate. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a survivor of the shooting at the Tucson Safeway on January 8, 2011, is an extremely close friend of Zoellner, who counts her within the “maybe twenty people” he has loved in his life. The emotion that Zoellner brings to his journalism does not weaken the execution of his storytelling, but rather improves it.
Zoellner starts with the event, seemingly isolated and singular. Next, he backtracks to construct a history of the state of Arizona. Zoellner, who is the best-selling author of five books of nonfiction and has worked as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and The Arizona Republic, grew up in this dry and often unfriendly place. He argues, in a way that doesn’t really convince as much as it just makes plainly obvious, that Arizona’s unique character allowed this tragedy to occur.
Zoellner carefully selects people to profile, and in revealing their personas and their connections to Arizona, he weaves a narrative of predisposition. James W. Clarke, an expert on American political assassinations, aids Zoellner in his research on the shooter, Jared Lee Loughner. Just like Clarke, Zoellner would say that it is impossible to divorce a heinous crime from its context, no matter how mentally impaired the perpetrator. Yes, Jared Loughner is a deeply disturbed man, but the mystery of his brain chemistry does not erase the fact of the increasingly venomous political dialogue in Arizona, nor of the state’s lax standards on background checks before the sale of a firearm. The culprits are many, and everything is connected. As one of the people Zoellner profiles, Jon Logiudice, is fond of saying on his radio show, “ ‘it…all…plays…in.’ ”
There is Russell Pearce, the author of the aggressive anti-immigration law Senate Bill 1070, who as a deputy in 1977 got his right ring finger shot off by a Latino boy whom he approached because the boy and his friends were drinking beer. Or Joe Arpaio, the infamous Maricopa County sheriff who attributes his obsession with publicity to one homecoming to Springfield, Massachusetts: much to his delight, he discovered that his father had been proudly distributing to friends the news clipping about his son’s work in Turkey for the DEA.
And, of course, there’s Zoellner himself. He devotes the perfect amount of space to describing how his unique relationship with Giffords began. In these pages, he convinces his readership of his investment in honoring her and exposing the deep-seated machinations that allowed Loughner to kill six and injure eighteen. With his personal history interspersed through the book, Zoellner adds a literary touch to his excellent journalism. He applies his own experience to an incident that affected a whole state, and thus evokes the emotion that is necessary to tell such a story.
From his emotion flows the truth. If Arizona’s political and social climate is in some way to blame for the Safeway shooting, then its leaders, Zoellner believes, can make the proper decisions to transform that climate into one that will prevent something so horrible from repeating itself.