Arizonans Try To Make Sense Of Saturday's Tragedy

Guests

Peter Michaels, news director, Arizona Public Media
Ted Robbins, NPR correspondent, Southwest
Randy Graf, former Arizona state representative
Ed (E.J.) Montini, op-ed columnist, The Arizona Republic

The shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others in Arizona holds a number of lessons for those who live in the state. It's a time of shock and sadness, and in the words of Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, a time to do some "soul searching."

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

A gunman killed six people and wounded 14 others on Saturday morning in Tucson. Among the injured, Representative Gabrielle Giffords, a moderate Democrat who just won her third term in Congress. Among the dead, federal Judge John Roll and nine-year-old Christina Taylor-Green. Twenty-two-year-old Jared Lee Loughner faces five federal charges. He's scheduled to appear in court later today.

The shooting follows a midterm election steeped in vitriol, and Arizona saw its share of disputes over health care, education, the federal and state budgets and the proper role of government.

Arizona also became the epicenter of the immigration debate, along the border with Mexico and at the state capitol, after enactment of a controversial law.

If you live in Arizona, what's changed since this weekend? Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And we begin with Pete Michaels, news director for Arizona Public Media in Tucson. He arrived on the scene just moments after the shootings. We should mention, too, that Pete Michaels is a former executive producer of this program and friend. Pete, how are you doing?

Mr. PETE MICHAELS (News Director, Arizona Public Media): I'm okay, Neal, thank you.

CONAN: And the mood, still shock there?

Mr. MICHAELS: I think most people are definitely still in shock. It's now Monday. You know, it happened on Saturday. A lot of people didn't even find out about it until Saturday evening or even Sunday morning.

And there have been vigils both here in Tucson and also up in Phoenix. On Sunday, thousands of people turned out to different churches across the city.

It's a small city, from my standards. It's the smallest city I've ever lived in. And people all seem to know everybody. I haven't spoken to anyone who didn't seem to know at least one of the victims of Saturday's tragic event. And the outpouring of support to the Giffords family has just been incredible.

CONAN: Why is it that you were there so quickly?

Mr. MICHAELS: Well, my wife had gone shopping at the Safeway, and I got a phone call from her, rather hysterical. I didn't know what she was saying. And I thought she was in a car accident.

So I got in my car and I drove the route that I expected she would've taken to the Safeway, and I saw all the yellow tape around the parking lot. At first, I thought maybe it was a bank holdup. And then I saw the ambulances back by the Safeway, and I remembered that Gabrielle Giffords was there, and I thought: Oh my God.

So I pulled around. I was able to get back in behind the Safeway and get in behind the tape before the perimeter had been fully barricaded. And I came around the front of the Safeway, and I saw the five bodies. I saw the congresswoman slumped against the wall with a shot to her head and the blood coming down her face. And they immediately took her by ambulance to another location and choppered her out to the hospital.

CONAN: You mentioned the five bodies. The sixth person killed was the nine-year-old, and she died in the hospital.

Mr. MICHAELS: Correct, correct.

CONAN: It must have been awful to see.

Mr. MICHAELS: It was. I was - you know, I was in D.C. during 9/11, and, you know - you know. I mean, you just get into your work. And that's basically what I did. Once I knew my wife was okay, I got on the phone to NPR and did a Q&A with the newscast unit and told them what had happened.

But I think, you know, I've been working here all weekend, and I think all of us are still just, you know, trying to suppress it.

CONAN: Since the shootings - I'm sure you saw the Pima County sheriff's news conference on Saturday. He characterized Arizona as a place ripe with prejudice and bigotry. Is that fair?

Mr. MICHAELS: I think at the political level, yes. I think the citizens that I have come to know in this community are very good people. The outpouring of support after Saturday's event is evidence of that.

You know, we came here because of the landscape of Arizona. It's just a beautiful place. But the rhetoric over the past several years on issues like immigration, health care, as you mentioned, we now are not funding organ transplants, we've got a new immigration law, SB1070, which is in the courts. We have the most lax gun laws in the state. You can carry a concealed weapon now without a permit.

You know, and all this rhetoric around the border, the illegal immigration, the flow of guns and people-smuggling. It's just created a very volatile situation in terms of the angry rhetoric.

CONAN: And you've, as you mentioned, lived other places. Do you think it's more toxic in Arizona and in Tucson than it is other places?

Mr. MICHAELS: I don't know. I think right now it might be because there's so much focus on Arizona. I've noticed over the past few months how many times there's a dateline in The New York Times from either Phoenix or Tucson, and it's usually a story you really don't want the rest of the country to be reading about.

I mean, I know there are other states dealing with severe economic problems, like we are, and it creates a more angry environment. But right now, I think the situation here is definitely different, as Sheriff Dupnik pointed out.

CONAN: You mentioned your wife. She worked for Congresswoman Giffords a few years ago on community relations there in Tucson. You know the congresswoman yourself. Tell us a little bit about her and how she's viewed by people in the community.

Mr. MICHAELS: She is loved by people in this community. It's - her district is a majority-Republican district, and in the last election, she was one of a handful of Democrats and the only woman, I understand, who was re-elected.

It was a tighter race than she's had before. In her first race, she ran against a gentleman named Tim Bee, and the two of them were high school classmates. In the next race, with Jesse Kelly, she also knew him from school.

Everybody likes her. She does these Congress On The Corner events every time she comes back to the district. It's an opportunity for her to reach out to the community. It's something that she loves to do. She will talk to anyone, whether they're for or against her.

She gives people time. She is always pleasant. The staff is like a family. When my wife was working there, Gabrielle got married to Mark Kelly, the NASA astronaut, and we were invited to the wedding.

We have had events at our home where staff members came to, and they have opened their homes up to us on several occasions. I just, I think anybody who knows her here in Tucson truly loves her a lot.

CONAN: You mentioned her brother-in-law now in space, on the International Space Station.

Mr. MICHAELS: Right, and Mark Kelly is scheduled to go up in a few months, in March, and I think it's the last shuttle mission. I don't know what's going to happen with that now, but I know he was looking forward to it.

CONAN: Pete Michaels, news director at Arizona Public Media. We want to hear from callers in Arizona today, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. What's changed since this weekend? Marsha's(ph) on the line, Marsha calling us from Phoenix.

MARSHA (Caller): Good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

MARSHA: I live in Phoenix. I was away for 30 years, but I grew up in Arizona, in a Goldwater-supporting household. I'm a registered independent. And I think the rhetoric has definitely changed in the last few years. I've been back for four years now.

In the last two days, it has been so refreshing to hear leadership, our political leaders, praise Gabrielle Giffords and also Judge Roll. I work in the legal profession, and I must say the loss of Judge Roll is so wrenching. But it's been wonderful to hear people come together over a tragedy.

And all I can say is: Why can't we speak respectfully to one another every day? I don't remember it was like this in the past. You know, I was young when I lived here before, and certainly, everywhere rhetoric is inflamed. But here, I do agree with the sheriff in Tucson that this is - it's getting worse here, and it seems to get worse by the day.

CONAN: And do you expect this new atmosphere to sustain?

MARSHA: I don't. I'm afraid that once we have all recovered in a few weeks, we'll go right back to what - the inflamed rhetoric that we've been hearing from the legislature here in Arizona specifically.

It's - more Democrats lost in this last election. It's heavily run by the Republicans, and it's run by people who seem to have some litmus tests. Russell Pearce, who runs the Senate, recently called some citizens who disagreed with him 'people who want to destroy the republic.'

How can you even respond to a statement like that? It's a ridiculous thing to say to your fellow citizens, who are just simply trying to make things better here in Arizona, where we've got a lot of problems, and our economy is in shambles.

CONAN: And Pete Michaels, that kind of rhetoric, well, that's the kind of thing we've been hearing. And yes, in Arizona, most of the politicians are Republicans, but you hear some of that from the left, too.

Mr. MICHAELS: Yes, you do. You do. And, you know, as she points out, the state lawmakers now have a supermajority on the Republican side. It'll be interesting this afternoon. Our governor, Jan Brewer, a Republican, is holding her annual State of the State address.

There was some speculation that she was going to postpone it, but she's decided to go ahead. They're saying the speech is much shorter, and she will be talking about public service.

So maybe through those remarks today, which we're going to be carrying live here, maybe she can start a different climate, a soul-searching, a stepping-back, some sort of effort to start to turn this around.

CONAN: Marsha, thanks very much for the call.

MARSHA: Thank you.

CONAN: And Pete, we'll let you get back to work.

Mr. MICHAELS: Okay, Neal, thank you.

CONAN: Peter Michaels, news director at Arizona Public Media, joined us from a studio at Arizona Public Media in Tucson. Throughout the hour, we're also going to be reading editorials and other comments from Arizona.

This from the editorial page in the Arizona Republic, which urged politicians not to hide in fear: There are, sadly and inevitably, some risks in public life. However, they are no different today than they were a week ago. Congresswoman Giffords herself was particularly iron-willed about seeing the public.

In August 2009, a protester brought a gun to her Congress On Your Corner event in Douglas. Police were alerted when he dropped it. In an interview that month with the Arizona Republic editorial board, she shrugged off the incident.

To all appearances, the gunman in Saturday's carnage was severely disturbed. There may be few, if any, links between that bloodshed and the vitriol that is poisoning American political discussion.

But the level of hostility has reached troubling levels. Opportunistic commentators and politicians are whipping up emotions over hot issues like immigration and health care.

We may never know if our society's coarse debate was the nexus for Saturday's shooting, but it would be a positive consequence of this atrocity if we used it to start treating each other with greater civility.

It is, in fact, the responsibility of all citizens to help create through responsible words and deeds a safe harbor in which American politics and robust debate can occur free of fear.

That from the editorial page on the Arizona Republic.

If you live in Arizona, what's changed since this weekend? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. NPR's Ted Robbins will join us from Tucson in just a moment. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

Two days after the shooting in Arizona, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords remains in the hospital. The suspect, Jared Lee Loughner, is set to appear today in federal court.

NPR's Ted Robbins has been covering this story all weekend and joins us now from Tucson. And Ted, nice to have you with us today.

TED ROBBINS: Good to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And is there any change in the congresswoman's condition?

ROBBINS: No. In fact, you know, the chief of neurosurgery at University Medical Center in Tucson said that - this is a quote: No change is good. She is still following basic commands, and the CAT scan is showing no progressive swelling. So in this case, the old saw that, you know, no news is good news seems to hold.

CONAN: And are we hearing anything more about the suspect?

ROBBINS: He is going to be in court for an initial appearance in just -in less than two hours. He is set to appear before a magistrate judge in Phoenix - they moved it from Tucson - to face federal charges in connection with the shooting rampage.

So he has been charged with killing two federal employees and attempting to kill three others, and one of those, of course, was the presiding federal judge for the state of Arizona, John Roll, and that is - we believe that's one reason why they moved it to Phoenix.

CONAN: And we understand the judge was just there by happenstance, saw an opportunity to talk to a friend about some issues that he wanted to talk about and just dropped by.

ROBBINS: Yeah, and - that's exactly right. He had come from - he was a devout Catholic. He had come from Mass on Saturday morning, and he was going home to do some house cleaning, and he just - he saw her there, and he stopped by to say hi, a complete accident, even though, frankly, he had received some death threats over a particular case a couple of years ago.

CONAN: And Pete Michaels was telling us previously that everybody in Tucson seems to know everybody else. You knew several of those involved in this case, too.

ROBBINS: I did, including Judge Roll. He was a great help in a series I did last summer on Operation Streamline, which is putting - straining federal judicial resources in trying to prosecute illegal crossers into this country. He was a fighter for that.

And I knew him when he was on the state bench, as well. He was very cooperative. He was a good and decent man. He was - he had been appointed by the first President Bush to the federal bench, and he was fighting - and I suspect, he was there to see Congresswoman Giffords to check in and fight for more resources for the judiciary.

CONAN: All right, and keep us up to date, if you would. I know you're very busy.

ROBBINS: And let me make a quick correction because we'll be getting calls, we know.

CONAN: Okay.

ROBBINS: That Gabrielle Giffords' first race was against a fellow state legislator, Randy Graf.

CONAN: And we were about to correct that because Randy Graf is our next guest, so...

ROBBINS: Well, there you go, okay.

CONAN: All right, so - but thank you very much, Ted Robbins, we appreciate your time today.

ROBBINS: Of course.

CONAN: NPR correspondent covering the Southwest, with us from his office there in Tucson.

Let's get another caller on the line, and this is Omar(ph), Omar calling from Tucson.

OMAR (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Omar, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

OMAR: Well, yeah, I wanted to say that I grew up here in Tucson. My parents live right down the street from the Safeway. And I've been talking to a lot of the friends that I grew up with, and, like, today, there's a big change. There's a big feeling of more community, more family.

Everyone's hugging their kids. I had some friends that said: Hey, today I took my kids to school. It was the first time in a long time that I took them to school. And everyone's just - you know, they're kind of rallying and talking. We're all talking with each other.

Some people love what the sheriff said, like I do. Some people hate it. I may not agree with everything he said, but it's finally - it's taken some time that, you know, after tragedy after tragedy after tragedy that someone politically, like law enforce - hey, we need to stop this. We need to figure out how we can help our people. It's been pretty sad today, you know, still.

CONAN: Still. And have you attended any of the vigils? Have you seen any of the things going on?

OMAR: I've been watching the news constantly. I don't know if I can go out in public. Not that I'm afraid, but I'm just, like, you know, I don't want to be bawling and crying. But, you know, she was - everyone loved Gabby Giffords, and, you know, all the positive messages that she was putting out.

I mean, it wasn't nothing like hey, we need to do these horrible things or anything like that. But I don't know. It's still a little, you know, shaky. But the big thing is people are talking. People are communicating, and I think that's a big positive step towards helping the community out.

CONAN: Omar, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

OMAR: Okay, thank you.

CONAN: He and others have mentioned Sheriff Dupnik. That's Pima County Sheriff Clarence W. Dupnik, who weighed in on what he called reckless rhetoric. In a nationally televised news conference on Saturday, he said: When you look at unbalanced people, how they are, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government, the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous.

Sheriff Dupnik followed that up on a TV appearance on Sunday, calling Arizona the Tombstone of the United States, referring to the town in Arizona, Tombstone, for its lax gun laws and railing against the rhetoric about hatred, about mistrust of government, about paranoia of how government operates.

To try to inflame the public on a daily basis, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, has impact on people, especially who are unbalanced personalities to begin with, he said.

In an interview yesterday on CBS TV's "Face the Nation," Senator Jon Kyl said Dupnik's comments were inappropriate and nothing more than speculation.

First, Senator Kyl said: I really don't think that had any part in a law enforcement briefing last night. It was speculation. I don't think we should rush to speculate. I thought the report that we just saw from Tucson seems to have it about right: We really don't know what motivated this young person except to know he was very mentally unstable, as was pointed out.

It's probably giving him too much credit to ascribe a coherent political philosophy to him. We just have to acknowledge there are mentally unstable people in this country. Who knows what motivates them to do what they do? Then they commit terrible crimes like this.

I would just note that Gabrielle Giffords, a fine representative from Tucson, I think would be the first to say don't rush to judgment here.

A letter to the editor in the Arizona Daily Star expressed outrage at the sheriff's comments. Glen Gage(ph) of Tucson wrote: We listened to the news Saturday regarding the shooting of Congresswoman Giffords and the others attending her event. We're horrified and saddened.

Then we heard Sheriff Clarence Dupnik's comments later in the day. We were expecting a reasoned reporting of facts regarding the tragedy. What we heard were his political views on Tucson and the country. As a public official, he was out of line.

First, this was not the right time for such comments. Further, I for one do not agree with his opinions. He has not only embarrassed himself but the state of Arizona, the city of Tucson and all the people of the state and the city. He should render his resignation.

On election night last November, as the final votes were being tallied, Gabby Giffords sounded relieved it was over and criticized the bitter tone the contest had taken.

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Representative GABRIELLE GIFFORDS (Democrat, Arizona): I believe that this 20 election will probably go down in history as one of the angriest, one of the most difficult, one of the most challenging, one of the most negative and one of the most angry.

But while other campaigns across the country stooped to levels lower than we have ever seen before, our campaign stood up. We stood up for the people. We based our campaign not on politics but on solutions to real problems, not on fear, again, to solving the complex problems that face our community.

CONAN: That was this past November. Prior to that election, she ran against Randy Graf. He challenged her in previous years, in 2006. He's in the studios at Arizona Public Media today.

Randy Graf, good of you to be with us, and I'm sure you share the shock of everybody in Tucson.

Mr. RANDY GRAF: Oh, there's no question, Neal. Saturday, the events Saturday morning, when I got the call about 10:30, letting me know that something had happened and started following the media reports, we were all extremely saddened, obviously, and immediately started saying prayers for the victims and the families and everybody that was affected by this tragedy.

CONAN: I wonder, as an observer of the political scene, do you think this past election was more contentious than the one four years ago?

Mr. GRAF: Politics is a contentious business, unfortunately. You know, you've got two strong parties in this country that fight tooth and nail to try to get their political views across and their policies enacted.

This particular campaign season, obviously, came on the heels of a very bitter congressional fight over national health care issues. That certainly raised the level of a lot of discourse at town hall meetings all over the country.

I mean, I think we were all witness to many of the incidences and, you know, around the country with elected officials all over the place.

CONAN: And Congresswoman Giffords' windows were broken, or shot out, depends on who you listen to.

Mr. GRAF: Yeah, I mean, that's a different issue. We were at - you know, I attended a few of the town halls on the health care issue that the congresswoman had, and, you know, when they're looking at a bill, for example, the health care bill, it has 2,000 pages in it, and it's apparent that your congressman hasn't read it, yet they're trying to tell you what's in it, when they suggest that, you know, we're not going to vote for a bill that doesn't have X, Y or Z in the bill, and then they go back and vote for a bill that has X, Y or Z, you understand where constituents can get upset.

And they weren't as raucous here as they were maybe in other places in the country, but that was what led into this past election cycle.

And I don't necessarily know that this election cycle was any more bitterly fought than any previous one.

CONAN: And yours was as tough as they come, I think.

Mr. GRAF: Well, actually, I would - I think in our race, I had probably a more difficult and divisive primary in 2006. The election cycle in Arizona, our primary is late. It's early September. We only have about an eight-week general election. So by the time you get your sea legs back after a difficult primary, we've got a very short general election cycle.

I've known Gabby since 2000, when we all got elected together to the state legislature. So we've known each other for a number of years, and she's a strong, tough politician. And politics is, like I said, a difficult business at times, and I think anybody that's been in politics for any length of time sees this type of, you know, difficult situations.

Virtually anybody gets threats to one extent or another. I had them while serving in the legislature. So in the context of after this incident, I mean, people are trying to rationalize an irrational event. And unfortunately, between the media, between elected officials, you would hope that people would sit back, take some time, let's get to the truth and find out what the facts of the case were before people go over the top with responses and accusations.

CONAN: I wonder, do you think we're getting an accurate picture of Tucson from, example, Sheriff Dupnik?

Mr. GRAF: No. I don't. I mean, this community's going to come together after this incident. Like I said, we're all praying for Gabby and for all the victims and their families.

Obviously, we've had our issues down here, particularly, as it revolves around illegal immigration and some of the border security issues. I mean, last March, we had a personal friend of mine, Rob Krentz, the rancher in Cochise County, that was murdered. That case is yet to be resolved.

Just a few weeks ago, we had a Border Patrol agent just south of where I live in Green Valley, down in the Rio Rico area, that was murdered by bandits. There's been very little information coming out of the FBI or any government law enforcement agencies as to what happened there. It's frustrating when that happens.

So, you know, the idea that - in the past, when I was in the legislature, we worked on Proposition 200, trying to deal with our voting rights here in Arizona, making sure that when you register to vote, you're - prove that you're a U.S. citizen.

Well, you get into something like that, next thing you know, you're called a racist, and the rhetoric escalates. But the issue, obviously, we've got border security issues down here that have been a big issue in congressional campaigns for a number of years down here, and you hate to see that spill over and the impacts it has. When Congressman Grijalva calls for a boycott, he went over the top. People are going over the top within hours after this incident on Saturday, people started going over the top with laying blame on a whole list of different individuals and entities...

CONAN: Don't you...

Mr. GRAF: ...and I think it portrays - it doesn't portray Arizona correctly. I've lived here since 1984. I've been - my family's been here for 26 years. And is it as bad as what some of this rhetoric tries to proclaim? No. But when the sheriff down here goes out - and he stepped way over the line, I believe, in his comments. He's decrying rhetoric, but then actually engages in it himself. And that from, once again, particularly from elected officials, that doesn't do the public well.

CONAN: Randy Graf, former Arizona state representative, who challenged Gabby Giffords for Congress back in 2006. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And we're talking with Arizonans today about what's changed since this weekend. And I just want to get some callers on in a moment, Randy Graf, but do you think that the level of rhetoric on all sides, do you think it can be ratcheted down after - I mean, we, again, don't know what happened here, but the idea that this may have contributed to sending someone who is unbalanced over the line, it's a sobering thought.

Mr. GRAF: It is a sobering thought, but I don't - my personal observation is that this particular individual, what we're learning about him now is, I don't see any evidence that political rhetoric is what pushed him over the top. And I don't think it does in most cases. But where - you know, one person's rhetoric is another person's tough campaign speech. Where do you draw the line? That's a pretty difficult thing to, I think, to try to accomplish. And...

CONAN: All right. Let's see if we can get a caller on. Let's go to John, and John's with us from Flagstaff in Northern Arizona.

JOHN (Caller): Hello, there. Thank you very much, Neal. I - another great show.

CONAN: Thank you.

JOHN: I - Saturday night, I went to two places here in town and talked to - I was at a place for pizza, and there's two guys sitting there in camo with pistols, and I didn't notice until I was about halfway through the pizza. And as they left, I said, excuse me, fellas. Is this place that unsafe, you have to have pistols? And what they said was, well, you never know. You never know what's going to happen. And I said, you heard about the shootings in Tucson? Plus 10 feet away from them, there's a group of five or six children sitting, and I said I don't think that's the right thing to do.

I went to another restaurant and talked to them about it. I have not been back to them. The pizza place put up a sign, and guns are not allowed. Guns are allowed just about everywhere in Arizona, but if you post it in a restaurant, that - then they cannot come in. In this particular case and the - at the pizza place, they serve beer, and I talked to the manager. And I said, you know, guns plus beer is a disaster, and he agreed with me and posted the sign. It was encouraging. It was truly encouraging.

CONAN: Uh-huh.

JOHN: You know, the...

CONAN: Let's - I don't mean to cut you off, John, but I wanted to give Randy Graf a chance to respond.

Mr. GRAF: Well, I'm very familiar with the gun laws here in the state of Arizona, and, yes, in the state of Arizona, you are entitled and allowed to carry a firearm, obviously, under legal circumstances. Legislation was passed just a few years ago that allows firearms into restaurants and establishments that serve alcohol. If you are carrying a firearm, you're not allowed to consume alcohol.

But we don't want to get into the issue of blaming the gun. I mean, this was an individual that, obviously, fell through the cracks. It appears that there could have been opportunities to have this gentleman evaluated earlier, and perhaps been prohibited from carrying a firearm. But you can't blame firearms or gun owners for this. And people that lawfully carry a firearm are not criminals. You can make gun-free zones. We have them in Arizona - state buildings, educational institutions. It doesn't stop crimes from happening in those places, so let's not get into blaming the firearm.

JOHN: Go to the mother of a nine-year-old girl that died, that was shot and killed and murdered. Go to that girl's mother and tell them guns don't kill.

CONAN: John, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. And, Randy Graf, thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. GRAF: My pleasure, Neal.

CONAN: Randy Graf, a former Arizona State representative who ran against Gabby Giffords for Congress back in 2006.

More in just a moment. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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CONAN: Right now, we're focused on news out of Arizona. One young man with a nine-millimeter gun and an apparent grudge killed six people and injured 14 others, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. For the latest on her condition and the fallout from the shooting, you can go to our website at npr.org. If you live in Arizona, what's changed since this weekend? Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And we've had this email from Beth in Tucson. This Tucsonian thinks we need to look more broadly than just political discourse for the source of Saturday's tragedy. Whether Mr. Loughner's actions were inspired by political vitriol or not, we may never know. His mental health will be the subject of much study, I am sure. But I do suggest that if we want to see the source of violence in this country, we all look in the mirror. For decades, there have been concerns expressed about the growing violence in movies and on TV and now, of course, on the Internet and video games, as well. It's only logical that people raised as children on the entertainment violence should learn to use the same metaphors of targeting, reload and fighting in political discourse, too. It's only a step from there to actual violence.

The thought becomes the word. The word becomes the deed. Deeds develop into habits, and habits harden into character. We're a violent country and a violent people. It's a choice we can undo, but only if we have the will and the character.

Joining us now from his office at The Arizona Republic is columnist E.J. Montini. And nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. E.J. MONTINI (Op-ed Columnist, The Arizona Republic): Nice to be back. Thanks.

CONAN: And yesterday...

Mr. MONTINI: Although, it's a tough day for sure.

CONAN: I'm sure it is a tough day. Yesterday, you began your column: The who, what, where and how were answered quickly. The why we may never know. Anything more to add to that today?

Mr. MONTINI: No. Actually, I mean, I think that - actually, there -well, I guess yes and no, would be that. I think that the why was -has been eloquently stated by a number of people, including Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, you know, know when you say that you cannot control, necessarily, an unbalanced person. But you have to admit that in a very toxic environment, unbalanced people are more likely to do things like this than they are in a less toxic environment.

And I think that that - this thing that people hear need to pay a little bit of attention to: Is there a way to make the environment here a little less toxic than it has been? And that's - and it's been pretty much off the charts.

CONAN: Off the charts. You think it's worse there than elsewhere?

Mr. MONTINI: I do. I think that it got worse here early on because we were pretty much, you know, ground zero for the immigration debate, and that was a very toxic argument and continues to be a very toxic argument, this happening right in the state. And then it was fueled even further by a summer long of political campaign in which the candidates were extremely nasty and the vitriol was flying all over the place. You know, you add all those things together, you know, you can see how people who are unbalanced, you know, might latch onto that kind of discussion, and bad things could happen. It doesn't necessarily mean that it happened with this particular guy. But it is - at least, it affords us the opportunity to talk about it now and maybe see if things can improve.

CONAN: I wanted to read you this quote that was from Kelly Townsend, a co-founder of the Greater Phoenix Tea Party, who also spoke to The New York Times and said: Arizona is at the tip of the spear. I think people are getting to the pressure point where they can't restrain themselves anymore in expressing their feelings. I don't mean restrain themselves in terms of violence, but calling names. It's a reaction to all the pressures we're facing. It's not that anyone is trying to hurt anyone. It's just that our budget is so incredibly stressed right now, we can't afford to be paying for so many people coming into our state. That's a lot of pressure on the backs of everyone, so the anger and these kinds of statements are made underneath that pressure.

Is that...

Mr. MONTINI: Yeah.

CONAN: That...

Mr. MONTINI: You know, it doesn't just come from - you know, like just today, one - a state representative here, Jack Harper, reacting to what Sheriff Dupnik said yesterday, said - blamed the sheriff, said if Dupnik would have done his job, maybe this - meaning the shooting - wouldn't have happened. You know, that's ridiculous. It's an insane statement, only it's coming from someone who was actually elected here, you know? And he goes on to say when everyone is carrying a firearm, no one's going to be a victim. Well, also ridiculous.

And so when you have elected officials in the state - not just, you know, regular people, but elected officials - who have a forum, saying such ridiculous, angry, hate-filled kind of things, you know, you're producing an environment that is just really unhealthy. And you would like to think that a terrible event like this would actually get them to tone things down, but I'm not sure they will here.

I don't sense it yet. I certainly don't sense it from the responses to a column blogs, stories, articles that we've been seeing on the website, AZcentral.com, the one that supports The Arizona Republic.

It is still a very, very difficult environment. And you still have people that really wanting to point fingers rather than stepping back and saying, why can't we do this a little better or in a more civil way?

CONAN: Here's a tweet we got from Michael: I've been to numerous Phoenix Suns games this year, never patted down or magic-wanded. I was last night at the game.

And this question from Jamie. Why is - in Tucson - why is this individual not being identified as a terrorist?

Mr. MONTINI: Yeah. Yeah. It's an interesting time - I mean, it's a terrible time. And the fact of the matter is, I would like it if - and frankly, I would like it to see more of our most high-profile politicians here coming forward to say, you know, let's all take a step back here. Let's see if we can have our discussions in a more civil way. You know, we're not trying to say that it was just the atmosphere that did this. But certainly, wouldn't this be an opportunity for us to - you know, as we mourn the people who were lost, as we, you know, pray for the people who were injured, step back and try to be a little nicer to one another in our discussion about these things?

So much of the political campaign almost focused on the notion that the people with whom you disagreed were not only wrong, they were somehow evil. And that is just not the way things are supposed to be.

CONAN: Do you get the feeling that there's a sense of aggrievement not just amongst minorities, even those you perceive as majorities?

Mr. MONTINI: Well, as a matter of the fact, the sense of aggrievement is - manifests itself primarily in the majority, you know, because they had a constant stream of people in different forms of the media telling them that they have reason to be aggrieved. You know, pointing out that, you know, particularly in the discussion that had to do with immigration.

And you call the people who may disagree with you on one thing or another, sort of the open borders crowd or names that don't even make sense like, you know, communist or something like that. And it gets people all worked up in a way that just - and with no real adequate outlet - that just is not healthy and also doesn't serve to advance the discussion at all and maybe isn't meant to advance the discussion. You know, maybe it's meant only to serve as the - you know, they would argue - I'm sure a lot of people would argue, well, it's just an entertainment. It's just a discussion. It's not meant to be people take us seriously.

Well, you do take things seriously sometimes.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller in on the conversation. Let's go to Gregory(ph). Gregory with us from Cape Creek in Arizona.

GREGORY (Caller): Good afternoon.

CONAN: Good afternoon.

GREGORY: Montini just took away a lot of my material, but he's absolutely right. The toxic brew has not changed in Arizona and it's not going to. It's just going to heighten emotions and make polarization worse. I was driving through Scottsdale, Saturday, with my kids just minutes before the shooting. And my kids are pointing to a decal showing the president being urinated on and a bumper sticker calling him an ass.

Now, this stuff isn't right. We need self-control, not putting opponents in rifle crosshairs.

Mr. MONTINI: Right.

GREGORY: We need to stop words like don't retreat, reload. We have to stop the bigotry and the polarization and return to civility in political discourse.

CONAN: And you say crosshairs and don't retreat, reload. That statement, of course, from Sarah Palin, the crosshairs from a website, Facebook page, that has been since taken down. A spokesman for Sarah Palin saying those were not meant to represent rifle targets but rather something like a surveyor's mark or something like that.

Mr. MONTINI: Right.

Mr. MONTINI: Well, you know, the sad thing is - I mean, even, you know, there's what has become almost sort of the tragic, ironic interview with Representative Giffords that was done on MSNBC after that occurred. I mean, her district office was the end of life after her vote on health care reform. And she was asked about that and she said, you know - and I have it here on my computer - said, we are on Sarah Palin's targeted list, the way that she has it depicted has the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district. When people do that, they have got to realize there are consequences to that action.

I think that's true. I think that if you have a really vast audience, then you have an increased sense of responsibility or you should have an increased sense of responsibility that the things you say are going to be magnified in a way that they might not be magnified by, say, that guy driving around with the offensive bumper sticker.

And so, you have to take better care, choose better - more wisely, the words you use, the actions you take, so as not to incite, you know, this large group of people among whom you don't know who is out there. And I don't see that happening. I haven't seen it happening here, certainly, during the campaign, certainly during the discussions with immigration. And I don't really quite see it yet happening here, even in the aftermath of this horrible event.

CONAN: Ed Montini, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

Mr. MONTINI: No problem.

CONAN: E.J. Montini, op-ed columnist for The Arizona Republic, with us from his office there in Phoenix.

Let's get another caller in on the line. Rebecca(ph), Rebecca calling from Tucson.

REBECCA (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

REBECCA: I just think that a lot of the stuff we heard about how bad Tucson is comes from the people who are in news or politicians, law enforcement, not really the rest of us. I think most of the people in Tucson are incredibly friendly, are great people.

We love this multicultural climate, that's why we're here. Churches are multicultural, the schools are. I think that businesses in Arizona have come together to help the schools. Because of the financial crunch, the businesses have given school supplies, have bought stuff for children. All this stuff is just not a good example with Tucson. Tucson is friendly. They're happy. They're - they talk to you. It's a great place to live. And so I just wanted to say that.

CONAN: All right. Rebecca, thanks very much. We appreciate it.

REBECCA: Bye-bye.

CONAN: We're talking about Arizona, what's changed since this last weekend. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Ruben Navarrette, Jr., an NPR commentator, wrote on CNN.com that after his years of living in Phoenix writing for the Arizona Republic, he believes the state was ripe for this kind of violence.

The shooting comes in a state that has been malfunctioning for years, Navarrette wrote. Just ask Arizona's large and embattled Latino population, which has had to fight off everything from attempts to do away with ethnic studies to a notorious immigration law that all but mandates racial profiling by local and state police. The next battle, expected to start in a few weeks, will be trying to stop state lawmakers from seeking to undermine the 14th Amendment by denying birth certificates to the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants.

In 1990, state lawmakers stubbornly refused to honor the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. with a state holiday. That cost the state an estimated $100 million when the NFL pulled the Super Bowl from Phoenix area in protest. Two years later, Arizona voters finally gave in and approved a ballot initiative, creating a holiday.

Before that, in 1988, Arizona became one of the first states in the country to declare English its official language when voters approved Proposition 106, an unnecessary and divisive ballot initiative that required all state and local government businesses be conducted in English. Ten years later, the Arizona Supreme Court struck down the law as unconstitutional.

Throughout the 20th century, Arizona was a Southwestern bastion of unbridled racism and discrimination. Restaurants had signs in the windows that read: No dogs or Mexicans allowed. Now, Sheriff Dupnik and other Arizonans warn that sort of tolerance and meanness is back with a vengeance. This is where Arizona is headed now that is has removed the stigma from extremism and sanctioned narrow-mindedness. That from Ruben Navarrette Jr., writing on CNN.com.

And this from Amber in - I knew the Tucson shooter, she headlines. The young man who shot the congresswoman was in my poetry class. He was very strange and constantly made inappropriate and nonsensical comments. Based on my experience with him, he was not rooted in reality and so I am hesitant to assume that our political rhetoric has anything to do with what he did.

That said, I agree that it would be refreshing if politicians would tone down the negativity, but to place blame on any party or Arizona for being a bigoted state is too much to assume. None of us can know what was going on in Jared's mind. But as I experienced him, he was not mentally sound, and we should be focused on helping those with clear mental issues to better prevent these tragedies. Thanks, and again, that from Amber in Tucson, Arizona.

The six people who were killed on Saturday had little in common but their location that morning. They ranged in age from almost 80 to nine. Three retirees were killed: Phyllis Schneck, who was 79, Dorwan Stoddard and Dorothy Morris, both 76. Stoddard and Morris both came to the event with their spouses, and both of them survived the shooting. All three leave behind children and grandchildren. Dorwan Stoddard reportedly dove in front of his wife to block her from the gunfire.

The youngest victim, nine-year-old Christina Taylor Greene, was remembered as a budding politician. She attended the event at the Safeway to learn more about government. Born on 9/11, her father said she came in on tragedy and she went out on tragedy.

Judge John Roll, chief judge of the United States district court in Arizona, lived near the shopping center where the Congress on your Corner event took place. He stopped by to say hello to Congresswoman Giffords when he was killed. A lifelong Republican, Judge Roll had a reputation for being tough on illegal immigrants but also drew death threats after he certified a $32 million lawsuit filed by illegal immigrants against the rancher. The judge and Representative Giffords were friends.

Three of Congresswoman Giffords' aides were shot on Saturday. Thirty-year-old Gabriel Zimmerman did not survive. He said he loved his job as Representative Giffords' point of contact for constituents in the district. He told the Tucson Citizen in 2007, we serve who walks into our office and we don't ask what party they belong to.

The six people who died in that shooting on Saturday morning in Tucson, 14 others were hurt. Stay with NPR News and this public radio station for the latest developments in the story. And again, the alleged shooter is expected to appear in court in Phoenix about an hour from now.

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