I was in Arizona in 2003. It didn’t seem like a hateful place at the time.
I was more worried about not clearing security to get on the plane at Pearson Airport in Toronto, to be honest; it was less than two years after 9-11, and the atmosphere was one of raw suspicion. Would I be pegged as some kind of “subversive”, given my left-wing politics? Would I find out the hard way that I had been placed on a no-fly list? And were Canadians still being unfairly targeted, seeing how many people still had the mistaken impression that the hijackers had come in across our border?
Happily, my politics were never in question. And I was all clear of the dreaded no-fly list. All I had to do was answer, truthfully: Where are you going? Who are you staying with? Is this a business trip? And so on. Politics never entered the equation; I suspect they were more concerned about contraband than anything else. I made it through security without a hitch.
I should have relaxed then, but I was still nervous on the flight; I kept wondering if it would be blown up in the air, or if the plane would be shot down by the US Air Force. It was not an idle concern; somewhere over the mid-west, I saw a military jet rapidly circling at the same altitude as the Airbus I was in. It appeared to be circling around us, in fact. But it did not approach too closely, and after a minute or two, it was gone. We were safe.
Phoenix in January feels like Southern Ontario in late May; it was so warm out that I didn’t need my coat, even with the fleece lining zipped out of it. My hiking boots, which had felt chilly on my feet in frozen Toronto, were absurdly chunky all of a sudden. My best friend met me at the gate in short sleeves and khakis.
We drove to his place in a gated suburb in Glendale. The house backed onto Thunderbird Park, and the hillside behind it was dotted with prickly pears, saguaros and barrel cacti. At night, he said, the coyotes sometimes gathered there by the dozens for a yowling concert. There was a swimming pool, too, looking out on the hillside, and the corners of the fenced yard were guarded by ocotillo bushes which look like nothing but a bundle of dead, thorny sticks–that is, until you get up close and see the tiny green leaves clustered between the thorns. Hummingbirds would perch on the uppermost thorns of the ocotillos, apparently waiting for when the bushes would burst into red, tasselled bloom. I have never seen hummingbirds tinier–or more fearless–than those in Arizona.
I loved the park, and I loved the cacti, the ocotillos, the fierce little hummingbirds. I loved Sedona and Montezuma’s Well. I loved the eagle I saw sailing high over the pine woods near Flagstaff. The high desert environment agreed with me; every day was a good-hair day, a rare thing for one who grew up in the clammy climate of Southern Ontario, where the sticky air can turn naturally curly hair into an unmanageable pouf. Even though I hadn’t brought my neti pot along, and there was a visible brownish smog haze over the freeways, my sinuses remained clear. My rheumatism, a constant of life since my mid-teens, took a much needed holiday.
I liked Arizona just fine as a place. I could see why so many people went there for health reasons. I often wished, afterwards, that I could go back.
But I did not like Arizona as a state. The far-right politics, like the excessive suburban development, are out of joint with the delicate environment. They are also out of joint with basic humanity; impoverished migrants who risk their lives to cross rivers and deserts are treated like criminals, not the economic refugees they actually are. We did not see any “illegals” crossing into Arizona, since we were nowhere near the border.
But we did see a society subtly, pervasively, obsessed with keeping people out, as though that kept crime at bay. It didn’t; in the very same gated suburb where my friends lived, a neighbor had had the tires stolen off the SUV parked in his driveway; the vehicle was up on blocks. The neighbor actually had to stick a sign on it reading “THIS WAS THEFT!”
And yet they were squiffy about the strangest things, too: they had no law requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets, for instance. Considering the fast, heavy traffic on the Phoenix highways, this made no sense. One day we saw a big dude on a Harley–helmetless, of course–forced to dodge quickly across our lane when a car–probably driven by some idiot on a cellphone–pulled into the lane he was in. We had just been talking about the lack of helmet laws; my buddy told me how another friend, a pathologist in Ottawa, referred to motorcycles as “donorcycles” because the riders so often wound up on the slab in front of him with viable organs already harvested. Most of the donorcycle riders had stupidly neglected their helmets. “I bet he’s got skidmarks in his pants now,” my friend said, after that close call. We could have ended up in an accident too, had the biker’s reflexes been any slower. I was shaking; I had been hit by a car at 14, and did not want to see anyone else go through the same things I did.
But public safety takes a backseat to “freedom” in Arizona, apparently.
It takes a backseat in other ways, too. Gun laws there are lax and the gun-crime rates reflect this fact. You can carry a concealed semiautomatic pistol in Arizona, no problem.
But if you’re kind of brown and your surname is Spanish, watch out. You’ll be asked for your puppy papers. Never mind carrying a gun; you will have to justify your very presence on that dry, yellow-brown soil.
I did not feel good there about being fair-skinned, with a German surname. Slightly safer, yes, but in a guilty, embarrassed way. I do not like being a beneficiary of white privilege, any more than Mexicans like being victims of it; I prefer equal human rights to any form of privilege. Except for the brief, curt Homeland Security interrogation at Pearson Airport, I was never asked to show a single document, anywhere. What if I had overstayed my visit and decided on the spot to move, informally, to Arizona? That would have made me, by definition, an illegal immigrant. And my friends would have been guilty of harboring, too, by legal definition. But I bet no one would ever have stopped me, asking for papers. Since I don’t drive, they would probably never catch on. Maybe I’d even be able to buy a gun there; not that I ever would, mind you. I have a deep antipathy to the whole notion of packing. Ordinary people shouldn’t have to do it, as long as the law is doing its job.
But that’s just it: the law isn’t doing its job in Arizona. Second Amendment insanity reigns supreme there. Any attempt, however modest, to introduce sensible gun regulation, fails because the NRA sends in its flying monkeys at the first whiff of sanity in the air. So no one apparently bothers anymore. The intimidation is just so bad.
Meanwhile, gun crime just keeps on spiralling up and up.
And it’s gotten worse since the Teabagger Party has been making its loud, incoherent noises. It is surely no coincidence that they’ve stuck gunsights on all congressional districts where Democratic incumbents in favor of “Obamacare”–the very modest public-option healthcare reforms proposed by President Barack Obama–were up for re-election last year:
Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, of Tucson, Arizona, was one of those incumbents. Her name, as you can see, is fourth on the list above. And on Saturday, Rep. Giffords was shot in the head. Six others with her were killed, including a nine-year-old girl who’d just been elected to her school’s student council, and who had come out to meet her representative. A judge who had ruled in favor of undocumented immigrants was also among the dead.
But surely that’s all just a malign coincidence, eh? After all, the accused gunman is clearly deranged. There is nothing to be learned or inferred here. Never mind that the gunman himself referred to his premeditated crime as “my assassination”; his derangement is supposed to rule out all political motivations. We shouldn’t “politicize” this “senseless tragedy”.
Says the Teabagger Party, of course. And a lot of others who are perhaps better intentioned than the teabags, but obviously not a whole lot brighter. Mourn and grieve, they all seem to be saying; make a big fuss about the carnage and the death, pile flowers and teddybears all over the blood-stained sidewalk, build a shrine to the dead there, but don’t you dare draw any lessons from it, you disrespectful vultures!
This situation is frankly ridiculous. When a politician is the target of an assassination attempt, and that attempt comes just as a new Congress is sworn in and about to sit on a healthcare-reform debate, what’s not to politicize? The gunman may be deranged, but that doesn’t rule out political motivations; derangement and politics, as the teabaggers have proved, are far from mutually exclusive. This guy is not John Hinckley; there is no famous actress he’s trying to impress. His political statements are weird and disjointed, probably due to mental illness, but there’s no question that they have a general right-wing tenor. You’d find the same paranoid politics, minus the more obvious clinical signs of schizophrenia, just about anywhere the teabaggers are active.
And they are very active in Tucson. As the sheriff himself says, Arizona has become a hotbed for such political lunacy.
This is why I’m glad I wasn’t tempted to stay in Arizona beyond my allotted couple of weeks. I’m allergic to the politics of derangement. You see, we Canadians had this same debate more than twenty years ago. But our national character is different. So are our constitution and our charter of rights and freedoms. We resolved the matter promptly and in the interests of public safety, not the illusion of “freedom” as sold by the gun lobby.
And we were not deterred by bleatings for “respect” which took the form of leaving politics out of it. The Montréal Massacre was, like its Tucson counterpart, the doing of a deranged young gunman. Marc Lépine’s suicide note was rambling and semi-coherent at best. But as with Tucson, there was no question that the whole act was political in nature. After all, the fourteen dead were exclusively female. And he had singled them out on the pretext that they, most of them engineering students, were “feminists”–which, to him, meant women intruding upon an exclusively male world. That same rambling, semi-coherent suicide note was explicitly political.
It was widely acknowledged, as well, that easy access to guns had contributed to this tragedy and a number of other school shootings in Canada. Even the pro-gun crowd could not deny that Marc Lépine would never have killed so many women had he come armed with only a knife. The semiautomatic assault rifle he carried that day was among the weapons permanently banned, and other guns–long and short–became subject to stricter regulation, including registration for all legally owned firearms. Gun crime rates have been dropping steadily and dramatically here ever since.
And just think, this drop in crime would never have happened if a couple of women–Heidi Rathjen and Wendy Cukier–had not “politicized” the “senseless tragedy” over the objections of the prim-and-proper do-nothing crowd. They formed a coalition for gun control, lobbied for stricter firearms legislation, and got it. And the public overwhelmingly supported them, too. Gun control is popular here, for the simple reason that Canadians value a freedom our cross-border cousins seem to have grossly underrated: freedom from crime and fear.
It’s not that we don’t dread criminals and terrorists here; we do. But we do so at a rational, normal level. We’re not in a constant state of high anxiety, like many people south of the border. We don’t think ordinary citizens should have to pack guns in order to keep society safe; that’s the police’s job. And the police, at least, carry theirs where they can be seen, in holsters. That’s as it should be, and no one, myself included, objects to it.
Even after 9-11, our way has worked well for us. And certain US friends of ours appreciate the fact; Michael Moore being the most obvious one. Bowling for Columbine makes the case that the culture in the United States is tainted by paranoia, and that if people could get over that, pass sensible gun laws, and learn to look after each other better, as Canadians do, it would make a world of difference, for peace and prosperity both.
So far, Michael Moore’s calls have gone sadly unheeded. Since that movie came out, massacre after massacre has rocked the United States. All have been perpetrated by people with guns. I’ve lost count of them all. That’s not right; these things should be so rare that you could only count them on one hand, or better still, none.
So why do these massacres keep happening? Simple: It’s the toxic political culture, stupid.
Violent rhetoric fuels insanity. Is it unreasonable to suggest that this time, it pushed an already unstable youngster over the edge? I don’t think so, and neither do a great many others.
And yet, each and every time the opportunity for a real debate on gun control comes up, so do the hordes of NRA flying monkeys, flapping and shrieking and stifling the voices of reason with hysteria, intimidation and even death threats. Teabaggers have carried guns to town-hall meetings with the explicit intent to threaten anyone who got in their way. And they carried ugly, insinuating placards to anti-government rallies:
Does anyone dare to chance a “next time”, under such circumstances? Freedom of speech and peaceful assembly are thus effectively squelched; the First Amendment is drowned out by the machine-gun roar of the Second.
And yet, I dare to hope that maybe this time, the sane will prevail, and refuse to be intimidated. Many of my US friends agree. There’s no sense going through naked scanners and patdowns at airports, or surrendering all sharp objects and bottles of liquid, if the matter of gun control is never addressed. Guns will remain the home-grown terrorists’ and assassins’ weapons of choice. We Canadians do not feel less free for having gun controls in place; on the contrary, we are more so. Terrorism is extremely rare up here, as is assassination. And in the face of pressures from the south to liberalize in the wrong direction, we resist. We do not allow ourselves to be manipulated or cowed by phantom menaces, much less the real one presented by the NRA.
Freedom from fear is an underrated thing, but maybe, just maybe, it will finally catch on in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. But it will never do so unless some free, brave thinkers take courage in hand at last, as we did. And for that, the people will for once have to politicize a “senseless” tragedy, make sense of it, and unite to put that sense into legal action. It will never get done any other way.
PS: Go. Now. To Orwell’s Bastard. I command you.