January 13, 2011
"I think we're the Tombstone of the United States of America," said Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik after the Saturday massacre in Tucson.
Tombstone, the silver-mining boomtown-turned-tourist town 70 miles south of Tucson, holds a signal place in American mythology, with its macabre name, its historic reputation for lawlessness, and its told-and-retold story of the Earp brothers and the gunfight at the O.K. Corral — the epitome of all that was wild about the Wild West. Sheriff Dupnik, 30 years on the job and long noted for his blunt and sometimes contrarian views on hot- button social issues not necessarily connected to law enforcement, tapped into the well of mythology as few others could; after all, Wyatt Earp himself was once the sheriff of Pima County.
Sheriff Dupnik had his home state in mind, of course, and there's certainly some reason for it; Arizona has lost its fun- in-the-sun image of late. The passage of SB 1070, the strictest illegal-immigration state law in the nation, last April, ignited protests and boycotts throughout the country. (Dupnik said the law "is unwise, it's stupid, and it's racist" — "a national embarrassment".)
Also recently enacted were laws allowing Arizonans to purchase guns without a license and to pack concealed weapons without a permit, and prohibiting counties and municipalities from setting tougher regulations themselves. (Dupnik: "I have never been a proponent of letting everyone in this state carry guns under almost any situation, and that's almost where we are." An ironic sidelight on the issue came from Georgetown history professor Katherine Benton-Cohen, writing in Politico: By 1880, she notes, the town of Tombstone itself had outlawed the possession of all firearms.)
On January 1, a law went into effect withdrawing state funding from schools offering courses that are "designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group" and that "advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals" — a law which the state superintendent of schools said was specifically directed against the Chicano studies program in the school district of ... Tucson.
Perhaps even more than elsewhere, an atmosphere of rancor seems to have infused Arizona state politics over the last several years, beginning with those shouting-matches called "town hall meetings" over health-care legislation and continuing through the bitter midterm Congressional campaigns. "The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous," Dupnik said after the shootings. "And unfortunately, I think Arizona has become sort of the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry."
Dupnik may be right about Arizona — it's certainly developing a reputation — but the myth of the West, of which Tombstone and the O.K. Corral are examples, is embedded in the American consciousness, containing themes of individualism, scorn for governmental control, hatred for outsiders, and the supremacy of the gun, all of which underlie much of the rhetoric of the Right.
Whether or not the Tucson shooter was acting out those Tombstone themes may never be known. Yet, as Dupnik remarked: "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."
For those of normal disposition, the rhetoric of anger is taken metaphorically and sublimated. For those who are "unbalanced," it can become an atmosphere of pure oxygen waiting for a match.
Wouldn't you think that the deaths of those six innocents would change a nation's mind about the common sense of gun control? Wouldn't you think that the wounding of those 13 others would demonstrate how vulnerable to fate we all are, and that medical care is not a commodity but a necessity and a right? Wouldn't you think that this horrifying event would at the very least sober people up about the dangers of incendiary words?
The answer is probably no. The myth of Tombstone will not die.