Tucson Begins to Heal

TUCSON, Ariz.--As President Obama heads here today to lead a memorial service for the victims of Saturday's mass shooting, the city is showing signs of healing and reclaiming its trademark spunk and personality--and the state seems to be following suit, as well.

The continued recovery of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., from a gunshot to the head is being greeted as both miraculous and a tribute to her bravery, typified by David Fitzsimmons' editorial cartoon in the Arizona Daily Star today. The cartoon depicts a man and woman in front of a movie theater showing "True Grit."

"I understand it's about Congresswoman Giffords," says the man.

It's fitting that the University of Arizona is hosting the service, as it has long been the center of this relatively young city. The state's first land grant college, its founding came 31 years after the Gadsden Purchase of 1853 and 27 years before Arizona became a state.

Classes at the university were canceled today, and Sun Tran, which operates the local bus system, is providing free shuttles to the event, much like during Wildcat football games, when the city essentially shuts down to cheer on the team. The anticipated overflow crowd at the McKale Center, which has a capacity of 14,545, will be nothing new. Students for decades have had to enter a lottery to score season tickets to Wildcats basketball games. The overflow will be directed to the adjacent football stadium, which holds 57,000. People around town began lining up for the event early today.

Elsewhere, there was no partisan finger-pointing when the state legislature on Tuesday unanimously passed a measure providing for a 300-foot buffer zone between a funeral and protesters. The measure was passed to head off threats from the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., to use the funerals of some of the six killed Saturday to further its agenda.

Republican Gov. Jan Brewer signed the bill in the evening, after she wrapped up a trip to Tucson to visit Giffords at the University of Arizona Medical Center and reprise her "state of the state" address to the Arizona Chamber of Commerce here. Brewer, along with Obama's 2008 opponent, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., will both attend the service.

Even without the law Brewer signed, people in Tucson had already started taking steps to head off the Westboro crew, who threatened to protest the funerals of Christina Taylor-Green, the 9-year-old girl killed Saturday, and U.S. District Judge John Roll. Angel Action, a Tucson group, plans to form its own buffer of people wearing white and holding up sheets to shield the funeral goers from any protests.

Tucson is a proudly quirky, iconoclastic place. A local bar owner and one-time boxer, who legally changed his name to God, has run for mayor several times. God never won, but the current mayor, Tucson Mayor Bob Walkup, is himself a break-the-mold type. A popular, three-term incumbent Republican in a Democratic city, Walkup is a law-and-order guy, and a proponent of solar energy, street cars, exercise, and healthy lifestyles, and also a relentlessly cheery advocate for the city.

He was interviewed on CNN today at the Hotel Congress, a Tucson landmark that revels in its weirdness. A historical building south of the university, the hotel and its bar are a mecca for alternative music and hipsters, and is currently touting its upcoming "Dillinger Days," which celebrates the capture of John Dillinger by Tucson Police in January 1934 at the hotel.

The hotel has an old-fashioned barber shop with a Red Hot Chili Peppers-loving stylist, David Glenn Rodenborn. He canceled his appointments today to go stand in line at McKale Center early. "I'm going, man. It's just the right thing to do," he said. It's a scenario being repeated all over the city.