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Sheriff Dupnik is right about Arizona

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., CNN Contributor
  • Sheriff Clarence Dupnik says Arizona has become a place where intolerance reigns
  • Navarrette says state has recent history of extreme views on immigration, other issues
  • He says Arizona "has removed the stigma from extremism"
  • Early efforts to blame the right wing for the shootings were misguided, he says

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a nationally syndicated columnist, an NPR commentator, and a contributor.

San Diego, California (CNN) -- Arizona is broken.

In the wake of the shooting of a congresswoman and 19 other people, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik told the news media Saturday that he blamed "the vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out from people in the radio business and some people in the TV business."

"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. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry."

Bingo. Take it from me. I lived in Phoenix in the late 1990s while writing for The Arizona Republic. Dupnik got it exactly right.

Raise your hand if you have had it with the drama capital of America, which seems to spend more time on the front page than the other 49 states combined. Or if you think the Grand Canyon State has become, in recent years, more trouble than it's worth. Or if you feel like saying, to paraphrase what folk singer Phil Ochs said about Mississippi in the 1960s: "Here's to the people you've torn out the heart of. Arizona, find yourself another country to be part of."

The latest heartbreak comes from Saturday's horrific shooting rampage in Tucson. What authorities believe started as the attempted assassination of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords at an outdoor constituent meeting turned into a mass shooting that killed six people and wounded more than a dozen, including Giffords.

The deceased include U.S. District Court Judge John Roll, Gifford's Community Outreach Director Gabriel Zimmerman and 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green of Tucson.

Sheriff versus the airwaves
Sheriff criticizes political vitriol
Is political rhetoric too heated?
Incorrect reporting, the blame game

The alleged shooter, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner, used a 9mm Glock holding a magazine with more than 30 rounds. A lot more people might have been killed if heroic bystanders had not tackled Loughner to the ground and wrestled the gun away.

The shooting comes in a state that has been malfunctioning for years.

Just ask Arizona's large and embattled Latino population, which has had to fight off everything from attempts to do away with ethnic studies to a notorious immigration law that all but mandates racial profiling by local and state police. The next battle, expected to start in a few weeks, will be trying to stop state lawmakers from seeking to undermine the 14th Amendment by denying birth certificates to the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants.

In 1990, state lawmakers stubbornly refused to honor Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. with a state holiday. That cost the state an estimated $100 million when the NFL pulled the Super Bowl from the Phoenix area in protest. Two years later, Arizona voters finally gave in and approved a ballot initiative creating a holiday.

Before that, in 1988, Arizona became one of the first states in the country to declare English its "official language" when voters approved Proposition 106, an unnecessary and divisive ballot initiative that required all state and local government business be conducted in English. Ten years later, the Arizona Supreme Court struck down the law as unconstitutional.

Throughout the 20th century, Arizona was a Southwestern bastion of unbridled racism and discrimination. Restaurants had signs in windows that read: "No dogs or Mexicans allowed."

Now, Dupnik and other Arizonans warn that sort of intolerance and meanness is back with a vengeance. This is where Arizona is headed now that it has removed the stigma from extremism and sanctioned narrow-mindedness.

But those on the liberal left who -- in the first few hours after the shooting rushed to blame the tragedy on right-wing talk radio, the Tea Party movement and even potential 2012 GOP presidential hopeful Sarah Palin -- have at least two things standing in their way.

First, Giffords is a Democrat but she is a conservative one. In fact, on issues such as immigration, she was often criticized for not being liberal enough for some Democratic constituents. After U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bolton struck down much of SB 1070, Arizona's immigration law, Giffords issued a statement insisting that the law had been passed "because we were fed up with years of federal inaction and neglect."

Republican Gov. Jan Brewer also likes to blame Washington for a situation that Arizonans visited upon themselves by hiring illegal immigrants. It's not true.

There are now more than 4,000 Border Patrol agents stationed on the Arizona-Mexico border. And in the past two years, the Obama administration has deported nearly 800,000 illegal immigrants, a new record.

Secondly, just as Giffords isn't exactly a left winger, it's also far from clear that Loughner is a right winger.

Caitie Parker, who said she knows Loughner from high school and college, tweeted: "He was a political radical & met Giffords once before in '07, asked her a question & he told me she was 'stupid & unintelligent.' She later added in another tweet, "As I knew him, he was left wing, quite liberal and oddly obsessed with the 2012 prophecy."

Many Americans may have this story all wrong. We'll have to wait for more details. But already we know this much: Giffords appears to be a centrist who hasn't followed many of her colleagues to the far right or the far left.

These days, in Arizona and around the country, the middle of the road can be a dangerous place to be.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette Jr.