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The color purple

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I went to high school with Gabrielle Giffords. I didn't know her, even though she was in my small graduating class. Like the rest of the country, of course, I was transfixed by the news of her shooting in Tucson on Saturday morning. Then the news came of the other casualties: 20 had been wounded, and six people—by all accounts kind and gentle—were dead.

I watched as the news media tried to make sense of a seemingly senseless act of violence. Was it politically motivated? Was there an accomplice? And what, exactly, is wrong with Arizona?

That last question makes as much sense as asking what was wrong with Virginia Tech or Oklahoma City during their respective tragedies. Outbursts of mass murder seem to be a national problem. But the picture of my beloved hometown as painted in broad strokes by the media wasn't one that I recognized.

Reporters, for instance, marveled that Giffords, a Democrat, was able to win office "in a largely conservative part of the country." While Arizona generally votes Republican (like North Carolina, mind you), Tucson is something of a liberal bastion in the state. It's been called America's biggest college town, and its large Latino population votes mostly Democrat—more so since the state passed its infamous anti-immigration bill in the spring.

I used to write for the leading local newspaper, the Arizona Daily Star; it has a distinct leftward tilt, which invites a daily stream of angry letters from a dedicated opposition whose ranks draw heavily from a large population of Midwestern retirees. Tucson's liberal bent is one of the characteristics that locals point to in order to distinguish the Old Pueblo from the Valley of the Sun, its more conservative, even-more-sprawling neighbor 100 miles to the northwest.

The careless misrepresentation of Tucson as a "conservative part of the country" is troubling not so much because it's wrong but because it's an oversimplification, an example of the "red state-blue state" mentality that infects our country. Attaching a simple color code to a diverse population is convenient for predicting electoral votes on election night. As a permanent model of the polity, however, it contributes to the "us and them" way of thinking that tragically found purchase in the disturbed mind of Jared Lee Loughner. What if the triggerman had been in the Triangle, another island within a historically red state? How satisfied would we be with the characterization?

For her part, Giffords' political leanings are more nuanced than red versus blue. A "blue dog" Democrat, she has supported gun rights. Perhaps now's the time to examine the wisdom of allowing 33-round clips for semiautomatic weapons. After Republicans took the House in the midterm elections this fall, she stood with them last week to read the text of the Constitution in a symbolic show of bipartisanship.

The Tucson she represents, the one I visited over the holidays, is desert tan and creosote green. Red and blue color the sunsets, not the people, who are united now in grief and in praying for a full recovery for Giffords.

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