01.08.12

One Year After Gabrielle Giffords’s Shooting: Tucson’s Renewal-Themed Memorial

On the anniversary of the Tucson shooting, the city's memorial focused on healing. The two victims who needed it most--the parents of Gabrielle Giffords's attacker--however, were absent.

Dressed in warm clothes and a snappy scarlet red neck scarf, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords hobbled up to the podium, pinned her weak right hand to her heart with her good left hand, and fearlessly and flawlessly led the Pledge of Allegiance during a vigil at the University of Arizona on Sunday night.

The evening vigil marked the end of a long renewal-themed weekend in Tucson that began on Saturday, at a chilly sunrise meditation at the base of mauve-tinted desert mountains overlooking the city. White-clad dancers wound through a large maze to the beat of drums, chants, rattles, and a Tibetan bowl, recognizing the first anniversary of what Tucsonans now refer to as “the Event,” a shooting massacre allegedly perpetrated by a seriously mentally ill man in front of a Safeway store. In 16 seconds, 13 were injured, including Giffords, who was shot through the head, and six others were killed, including a little girl, a judge, and a beloved Giffords aide named Gabe Zimmerman.

Ross Zimmerman, Gabe’s father, a blue-eyed, gray-haired 59-year-old ultra-marathoner, told me after the ceremony that “reaching out to others” and exercise has helped him cope with the loss of his son. Ross Zimmerman is widely recognized as the visionary behind Tucson’s weekend of meditative walks, hikes, runs, bike rides, ringing bells, and artistic performances to commemorate renewal after the shootings. His mantra, “Let’s keep moving forward, shall we?” infused the weekend.

The weekend focused on healing and victims, but two victims who needed healing were noticeably absent—the parents of the alleged shooter were not included in the events.

Giffords, a close friend of Zimmerman, had flown in from Houston, where she is undergoing intensive rehabilitative therapy, for the weekend. Giffords’ political future is far from settled, but on Saturday, she surprised constituents with a visit to the Safeway to view a memorial and a short walk on a desert trail dedicated to Gabe Zimmerman.

Around the office, Gabe Zimmerman’s calming demeanor with constituents had earned him the nickname “Constituent Whisperer.”

But its likely that not even Gabe Zimmerman could have calmed Jared Lee Loughner, the alleged killer whose descent into madness during a season of hate in Arizona was chronicled by paranoid, lonely Internet postings about grammar and the gold standard.

After the shootings, Loughner was diagnosed with schizophrenia and found mentally incompetent to stand trial for the bloodbath. He now sits in a federal facility in Missouri, where he is being forcibly and controversially medicated in order to be restored to sufficient sanity to attend a trial where he may face the death penalty. His lawyer, Judy Clarke, has launched a fierce, ongoing, and so far futile battle in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to force the feds to stop the meds. (She did not return my call seeking comment for this story.) It’s unlikely a trial will take place this year.

Loughner, who was 22 at the time of the shootings, is the only son of Amy and Randy Loughner, who underwent intense media scrutiny in the days following the shooting spree. Hadn’t the Loughners seen Jared’s deterioration? Why didn’t they do something?

After the massacre, neighbors only served to fuel suspicion. They told reporters Randy was an unpleasant loner who railed at them for messy yards and worked on old cars; Amy was a nice woman who worked at a county park and kept to herself; Jared was a weirdly unresponsive guy who wore hoodies—even in the hot summer. Except for a press release (issued shortly after the shootings) expressing sympathy for the victims, Jared Loughner’s parents did not grant a single press interview and have lived in apparent seclusion.

A year later, key questions about whether the Loughners sought treatment for Jared remain unanswered.

But during his son’s court appearances, Randy sometimes wept.

The Loughners were not seen at this weekend’s festivities in Tucson, although they still live in the same hilly working class neighborhood where they raised their only son in a 1,400 square foot house sealed off from the world with desert plants.

The home now has a new locked metal mailbox decorated with an intricate metal hummingbird and scorpion.  Early on Sunday morning, in preparation for a community bell ringing at the time of the shootings, some stranger had hung small bells on the Loughners’ mailbox. But as bells pealed throughout the city at 10:11 a.m., the time of the shootings, not a single bell rang out on the street where Jared Loughner grew up. I couldn’t tell if anyone was home—a large mesquite tree and dozens of cacti and succulents still block any view into the home. The back of the property is barricaded by a tall block wall. No one answered the door.

“You don’t want to talk to him,” one neighbor, who refused to give his name, told me. Several neighbors who talked to reporters a year ago now refused comment, and one neighbor hinted they’d been gagged: “You gotta understand, we have to live with him.”

The faith community has “reached out” to the Loughners, Rick Griebel, chaplain of the Northwest Bible Church, told me. But the Loughners seem “embarrassed” and have not responded to overtures, as far as he knows.

But as bells pealed throughout the city at 10:11 a.m., the time of the shootings, not a single bell rang out on the street where Jared Loughner grew up.

Pete Earley, a former Washington Post reporter and bestselling author who chronicled his struggles to get help for his seriously mentally ill adult son in the book Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness, told me in a telephone interview that when he first heard of the Tucson shootings, he figured it would be “another case where people will blame parents.”  He remembers reading that Randy once chased Jared down the street, which reminded him of the time he chased his son, Mike, after he’d jumped out of the car. “My heart went out to the parents,” he said.

And while no one knows whether Randy and Amy Loughner tried to convince Jared to seek psychiatric help, Jared was over 18 and legally an adult when the schizophrenia apparently took hold. If he didn’t want treatment, he couldn’t be forcibly treated unless officials determined he was a danger to himself or others. And danger to oneself or others is hard to prove until it happens, Earley said.

Prior to the shootings, Jared Loughner had a few very minor scrapes with the law, and was kicked out of Pima Community College for bizarre behavior. The college reportedly wrote the parents a letter recommending that he seek treatment, but the Loughners still couldn’t force their adult son to get help if he didn’t want it, and could not have him committed unless he was determined to be a danger to himself or others.

It’s not as simple, Earley explained, as “why didn’t you do something?”  Often parents who try to convince an adult son or daughter to get treatment might only end up irritating and alienating the mentally ill person they want to help.

It’s not known whether Loughner was insured. But if he had no insurance, he might have met another roadblock: Behavioral health services for the poor in Arizona have been severely curtailed due to a series of annual budget woes.

When she served in the Arizona Legislature from 2000 to 2005, Giffords was an outspoken advocate for treatment of the seriously mentally ill, said her district director Ron Barber.

Barber, a former director of the division of developmental disabilities of the Arizona Department of Economic Security, met Giffords because he advocated for people with behavioral health issues. He was shot twice during the Safeway massacre, but recovered, and noted the “irony of  me being shot by a mentally ill person.”

In Congress, he said, Giffords has had a “strong commitment” to fund treatment for people suffering from mental illness, and her office worked hard to insert mental health coverage into health insurance policies.

“What happened on Jan. 8 and what happened afterwards show the true face of problems confronting the mentally ill,” he told me. “I can only imagine the agony the parents are going through.”

Pam Simon, another Giffords staffer who was shot twice but also recovered from her wounds, told me she thinks often about Loughner’s parents because there is “no hell worse than what they are going through…they didn’t ask to have a mentally ill child.”

“From the beginning” she’s wondered how Loughner’s parents are faring. She was bolstered a bit, after the shooting, when a florist told her he’d delivered flowers to Loughner’s parents.  At least someone reached out to them.

Ross Zimmerman told me he’s “keenly aware of how horrible it is to lose a child.”

“And frankly,” he added, “the Loughners have lost Jared. And it’s not their fault. I’m sure they are in hell.”

The Loughners haven’t reached out to him, but if he could, he’d tell them: “I’m not angry at your son. I’m not angry at you.”

He’d rather Jared get treatment and be kept in a place where he would not endanger himself or others. He doesn’t support the death penalty. Neither did Gabe.

“I have no interest in killing one person because he killed another person,” Zimmerman said.

And at the evening vigil at the U of A, that sense of renewal and forgiveness carried into the words of Giffords’s astronaut husband Mark Kelly, who told the crowd that with more available mental health services and treatment, “We might not be here today.” And then Kelly returned to his seat and Gabby Giffords, smiling and nodding and clutching his hand, celebrated being alive.