Mary Beth Ginter never once voted for President George W. Bush, but she read aloud from his 2001 inaugural address with distinct enthusiasm here Saturday.
"America has never been united by blood birth or soil," she said into the microphone on the concrete plaza at Pima Community College. "We are bound by ideals that move us beyond our backgrounds, lift us above our interests and teach us what it means to be citizens.... And every immigrant, by embracing these ideals, makes our country more, not less, American."
Reading that last part, Ginter said, gave her idealistic chills and made her want to speak Bush's lines over and over again.
She was one of two dozen volunteers who read from the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and other canonical American texts at the Festival of Democracy, one of Tucson's many acts of commemoration and contrition last week marking the anniversary of the mass murder that took the lives of six people and wounded 13, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
One year later, what did the shootings say about Arizona, a state celebrating its 100th birthday this year in the midst of an extended period of political rancor and economic sclerosis? The question was on everyone's minds in the confused hours after the shootings, and it remains lodged in the civic subconscious 12 months later.
Arizona is still in a tough spot. The home-building industry used to be responsible for about 20% of the jobs here, and a good portion of the tax revenues. But the state took a hard hit in the foreclosure meltdown, and now 1 out of every 6 homes in the state is standing empty. Many of them were built to be flipped and have never seen a human inhabitant. The state even sold its Capitol to a private company and then leased it back for a quick cash infusion — an action that has been likened to selling a birthright for a mess of pottage, but it was more like the government equivalent of an EZ Cash title pawn.
Battles over immigration and gun laws, meanwhile, have consumed much of the Arizona Legislature's time. In 2010, it passed the infamous SB 1070, which requires local police officers to check immigration papers of anyone suspected of being a border crosser. Latino drivers in the Phoenix metro area are being stopped at a rate of four to nine times that of Anglo drivers, according to a recent federal report.
But the climate in the year since the shootings has been a slightly milder one. The author and primary driver of SB 1070, state Senate President Russell Pearce, was recalled by his constituents in a November election. Publicity-hungry Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who sought to make himself an international legend with midnight "immigration sweeps," had a bad year, what with having to answer for nearly $100 million in misdirected jail funds and a blistering report from federal investigators who called his practices unconstitutional. Local elections throughout the state have been conducted with a generally less heated volume. Foreclosures have slowed and home prices have started to stabilize.
Most notably, the city of Tucson embraced Giffords in a way that seems unfathomable after the 2010 elections, which were some of the nastiest in recent memory. On Sunday evening, a few thousand people lined up under the nonnative palm trees on the mall at the University of Arizona for a candlelight vigil (actual candles were banned; colored glow sticks were passed out instead), and gave Giffords a thunderous cheer as a symbol of the state's toughness and hoped-for unity when she recited the Pledge of Allegiance.
"Gabby had a second chance, and we have a second chance," said her former spokesman, C.J. Karamargin, who now works for Pima College. "She made us all Arizonans."
And yet that remains the most pressing question in the wake of the horrifying mass murder: Will Arizona seize its "second chance" and live up to the tremendous promise still embedded within the state in its centennial year?
The youngest of the contiguous states has always been a symbol of endless sunshine, opportunity, improvisation and life reinvention, all set in a dazzling crinkle of deserts and mountains with a rich border history and a Native American culture that stretches back to the time of the Bible. Construction and aerospace supplied the jobs, big federal dams supplied the water and the dry-heat weather supplied the easy lifestyle. Arizona was for years the second-fastest-growing state in the nation behind Nevada.
But the boom came with a high social cost. The repeated waves of newcomers had little experience with Latino culture, and the seemingly endless supply of cheap land made for mazes of instant mega-barrios with fake Spanish street names, and faked community too.
A recent poll by the Center for the Future of Arizona revealed the loneliness and mistrust that can fester in the Grand Canyon State: Just 12% of Arizonans strongly agree with the statement that "people care about their neighbors here," a nationally dismal figure. The state in all its subdivided, air-conditioned glory is like a metaphor for the challenges facing the United States in the new century: a changing economy, rising ethnic heterogeneity, tense politics.
On Saturday, the affirmations of the old values of democracy echoed off the hardscape at Pima Community College, and were later punctuated with the sounds of classic patriotic marches played by the 62nd Army Band, dressed in combat fatigues, and a different set of classics from the Herencia de Cuco Del Cid mariachi troupe, wearing sombreros.
"Arizona's been a funny place," said Ginter after she read the stately words from a president she didn't vote for. "But Tucson, through this recognition, can be like a model for how we move forward."
Conciliatory words won't be enough on their own, but this felt like as good a place as any to start Arizona's second century.
Tom Zoellner, an associate professor of English at Chapman University, is the author of "A Safeway in Arizona: What the Gabrielle Giffords Shooting Tells Us About the Grand Canyon State and Life in America."