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After shooting, Arizona ponders contradictions

The woman was a native Arizonan, her family going back six generations. Hours after her congresswoman was gunned down at a neighborhood supermarket, she stood at a candlelight vigil on a street corner and clutched a sign that read "Peace."

Margaret Robles lamented the shooting in the town where she'd lived all her 64 years. She praised Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, agonized for all the victims. But her sadness was mixed with shame.

"I'm embarrassed to say I'm from Arizona," said the retired teacher's aide. "Too many things are happening."

Yes, acts of violence can, and do, happen anywhere. And the dismay over the nasty political rhetoric of past years — much discussed in the days since Saturday's rampage — reaches far beyond this state's borders.

Yet a feeling resonates among some in the days since the shooting: that Arizona has become the nation's epicenter of divisiveness, the forefront of so much that's gone wrong.

The local sheriff of 30 years, Clarence Dupnik, perhaps put it most bluntly, condemning his native state as "the mecca for prejudice and bigotry."

"The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous," he said. "And unfortunately Arizona, I think, has become sort of the capital."

Just as the tragedy has prompted national politicians and citizens elsewhere to rethink who we are and where we're going as a country, it has left some here questioning the identity and ideals of a state that has come to exemplify a radical, antiestablishment, we'll-do-things-our-way approach to governing.

The "meth lab of democracy," comedian Jon Stewart called it last year, after Republican Gov. Jan Brewer signed the anti-immigration law that instructs police to demand proof of a questionable person's legal status. The measure, which inspired nationwide protests, boycotts and a flurry of lawsuits, was signed within a week of another law making Arizona the third state allowing people to carry a concealed weapon without a permit.

That very same week, some Republican state lawmakers were pushing a so-called "birther" bill that would have required the president to show his birth certificate to get on the state's 2012 ballot. That one never made it to the governor's desk but drove one Democratic legislator to declare: "We're becoming a national joke."

Similar grumblings appeared in the comments section after The Arizona Republic reported that a newly elected state senator brought her .38 special — stuffed into her purse — to Brewer's State of the State speech this week. "Wow," one reader wrote, "now I know the secret to getting elected in Arizona. PACK HEAT!"

Many comments, however, supported the senator.

Intolerant. Ignorant. Bigoted. Corrupt. Crazy. They are words that, at one time or another, have been used to describe a place that is, in truth, not so easily explained.

Longtime state historian Marshall Trimble likes to say that Arizona is a land of "anomalies and tamales," a contradiction of geology, geography, ethnicity, beliefs. It is a place of both pine trees and snowcapped mountains as well as saguaros and snake-filled deserts. Up north sits the nation's largest American Indian reservation. Down south, towns share a border — and customs — with Mexico. In between, Midwestern snowbirds seek refuge from winter, choosing the golf courses and retirement communities of Arizona as their half-a-year hideaway.

"The Grand Canyon State" has awe-inspiring natural beauty and the kind of wide-open spaces rarely found amid the suburban sprawl and shopping malls that define so much of America. But those peaceful mesas have also been home to ugliness: Violence related to the smuggling of drugs and human beings, and militias that responded with armed patrols.

"It's so diverse," Trimble said. "It's pretty hard to paint us all with a broad brush."

Still, whether entirely justified or not, the brush has come out many times in Arizona's history, turning the state into a stereotype that all too often is of its own making.

Think back to the flap over the Martin Luther King holiday in Arizona — which was created, then rescinded during the 1980s and finally re-established in 1992, at which point every state recognized the civil rights leader. It was a painful process. As with last year's anti-immigration law, charges of racism and bigotry flew. The state lost a Super Bowl over the controversy, boycotts ensued and the hip-hop group Public Enemy recorded a song in protest called "By The Time I Get To Arizona."

People still often refer to this place as the "wild, wild West," in large part because of lenient gun laws that have been criticized in the wake of the shootings. The suspect in the Giffords shooting, 22-year-old Jared Loughner, was able to buy a Glock semiautomatic pistol at a big-box sports store despite past troubles with the law and being considered so mentally unstable that he was banned from his college campus.

The state law signed last year by Brewer did away with a requirement for residents 21 and older to attend safety classes and obtain gun licenses, allowing Loughner to carry his weapon, concealed, without a permit. Gun owners here may pack just about anywhere, including bars and restaurants. State legislators also are considering allowing students and teachers to have weapons on college campuses.

Arizona, Dupnik said, has become the "Tombstone of the United States of America" — a reference to the Arizona town where Wyatt Earp, "Doc" Holliday and the Clantons shot it out in the Gunfight at the OK Corral.

Lattie Coor, the former president of Arizona State University who runs a think-tank called the Center for the Future of Arizona, understands why residents of the state, and outsiders, may question or criticize.

"I guess what I would say to Arizonans, and to the nation, is we all ought to look a little more deeply into what this place is and what it's doing. We are not a renegade, hate-filled society," he said.

His center worked with Gallup pollsters to measure the attitudes Arizonans hold toward their state and elected leaders. The results, released 18 months ago, found that just 10 percent believed state elected officials represented their interests. Arizona, Coor concluded, is more moderate, center-right than the rhetoric and partisan primary-dominated elections of recent years might suggest.

He noted that Democrats and Republicans split the last four gubernatorial elections. When President Obama was elected to office in 2008, a year that saw an increase in Democrats sent to Washington, Arizonans elected more Democrats than Republicans to its congressional delegation. And this last year, when Republicans won back control of the House in the anti-incumbent, conservative fervor sweeping the nation, the Arizona delegation swung back to a Republican majority.

Trimble put it this way: "We're a microcosm of the whole United States. We are you. We are everybody."

Others, nevertheless, find themselves harkening back to a different time. Sure, there have long been scandals and policies to scoff at — the "Keating Five" savings and loan investigation that involved two Arizona senators; the impeachment conviction of one governor and the court conviction and subsequent resignation of another; even the refusal to observe daylight saving time (supposedly because of the extreme summertime heat).

But the discourse, they said, has never seemed so unpalatable as it does now.

"We used to be really proud of this state. Now, it's almost like I don't want to go out and tell people I'm from Arizona anymore," said Jack August, a historian and executive director of the Barry Goldwater Center for the Southwest. "Instead of celebrating our wonderful diversity ... now it's like we've put up fences. We're off on our own. We're not going to play along."

Beth Grindell runs the Arizona State Museum on The University of Arizona campus, where thousands gathered Wednesday night to hear President Obama memorialize the shooting victims.

Grindell, like so many in this state, is a transplant, an Army brat who lived the world over but landed here in 1986. Even then, she said, Arizona had a bit of an image as a "nutcase state." But these past years have been different.

She and others point to the escalating problems with illegal immigration as the turning point; the Arizona border has become the busiest corridor for illegal immigration into the United States from Mexico. Add a recession and foreclosure crisis that hit the state's once-booming real estate market especially hard, and folks are feeling raw, angry, scared.

"Fear gets directed at people," Grindell said, whether through policymaking, political posturing or prejudice.

And while she doesn't see any connection between Arizona's political climate and the events of Saturday, she hopes — as others do — that the tragedy inspires a new way of doing business and a new attitude among her fellow Arizonans.

"In my sadder moments I think this is what we needed to turn us around," she said.

Since the tragedy, many Arizonans have said they have found reasons for reassurance — whether in the heroic actions of those who brought down the gunman or the first responders who so quickly offered aid or, even, in the measured response of their political leaders.

Brewer dedicated her State of the State speech Monday to remembering those who had been injured and killed. News conferences about controversial legislative proposals were canceled. And Republicans and Democrats alike in the Legislature have pledged to try to bring decorum back to the political landscape.

Said Brewer in an e-mail to The Associated Press: "I believe that most Americans continue to see Arizona as full of decent, civil, honorable, and hardworking citizens of this grand Republic. We take great pride in the unified response of our communities and families to these tragic events, and refuse to allow acts of evil to bring us down."

Patty Sirls, a 45-year resident of Tucson and the care coordinator at a Lutheran church, said this moment could serve as yet another turning point for Arizona.

"I really, truly believe that people will see beyond the evil that happened," she said. "I think we're doing a good thing. I think we're past being negative."

Added Grindell: "Maybe this is that button we had to hit before we say: 'No, this isn't the way we want to be.'"

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Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Amanda Lee Myers, Gillian Flaccus and Raquel Maria Dillon in Tucson, Ariz.