Image: Sept. 11 flag at Tucson funeral
Pool  /  REUTERS
An American flag recovered from New York City's ground zero after Sept. 11 is raised by firefighters at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church. It was the scene of the funeral of 9-year-old Christina Green in Tucson, Ariz., on Thursday.
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updated 1/13/2011 6:04:48 PM ET 2011-01-13T23:04:48

The woman was a native Arizonan, her family going back six generations. Hours after her congresswoman was gunned down at a neighborhood supermarket, she stood at a candlelight vigil on a street corner and clutched a sign that read "Peace."

Margaret Robles lamented the shooting in the town where she'd lived all her 64 years. She praised Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, agonized for all the victims. But her sadness was mixed with shame.

"I'm embarrassed to say I'm from Arizona," said the retired teacher's aide. "Too many things are happening."

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Yes, acts of violence can, and do, happen anywhere. And the dismay over the nasty political rhetoric of past years — much discussed in the days since Saturday's rampage — reaches far beyond this state's borders.

Yet a feeling resonates among some in the days since the shooting: that Arizona has become the nation's epicenter of divisiveness, the forefront of so much that's gone wrong.

The local sheriff of 30 years, Clarence Dupnik, perhaps put it most bluntly, condemning his native state as "the mecca for prejudice and bigotry."

"The anger, the hatred, 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."

Just as the tragedy has prompted national politicians and citizens elsewhere to rethink who we are and where we're going as a country, it has left some here questioning the identity and ideals of a state that has come to exemplify a radical, antiestablishment, we'll-do-things-our-way approach to governing.

'Meth lab of democracy'
The "meth lab of democracy," comedian Jon Stewart called it last year, after Republican Gov. Jan Brewer signed the anti-immigration law that instructs police to demand proof of a questionable person's legal status. The measure, which inspired nationwide protests, boycotts and a flurry of lawsuits, was signed within a week of another law making Arizona the third state allowing people to carry a concealed weapon without a permit.

That very same week, some Republican state lawmakers were pushing a so-called "birther" bill that would have required the president to show his birth certificate to get on the state's 2012 ballot. That one never made it to the governor's desk but drove one Democratic legislator to declare: "We're becoming a national joke."

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Similar grumblings appeared in the comments section after The Arizona Republic reported that a newly elected state senator brought her .38 special — stuffed into her purse — to Brewer's State of the State speech this week. "Wow," one reader wrote, "now I know the secret to getting elected in Arizona. PACK HEAT!"

Many comments, however, supported the senator.

Intolerant. Ignorant. Bigoted. Corrupt. Crazy. They are words that, at one time or another, have been used to describe a place that is, in truth, not so easily explained.

Longtime state historian Marshall Trimble likes to say that Arizona is a land of "anomalies and tamales," a contradiction of geology, geography, ethnicity, beliefs. It is a place of both pine trees and snowcapped mountains as well as saguaros and snake-filled deserts. Up north sits the nation's largest American Indian reservation. Down south, towns share a border — and customs — with Mexico. In between, Midwestern snowbirds seek refuge from winter, choosing the golf courses and retirement communities of Arizona as their half-a-year hideaway.

Slideshow: Mourning follows deadly shooting in Arizona (on this page)

"The Grand Canyon State" has awe-inspiring natural beauty and the kind of wide-open spaces rarely found amid the suburban sprawl and shopping malls that define so much of America. But those peaceful mesas have also been home to ugliness: Violence related to the smuggling of drugs and human beings, and militias that responded with armed patrols.

Image: Peace sign at Rep. Giffords' office
Chris Carlson  /  AP
Troy Wine puts up a peace sign at a makeshift memorial outside the office of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson on Wednesday. The congresswoman's shooting has left some in Arizona questioning the state's identity.

'So diverse'
"It's so diverse," Trimble said. "It's pretty hard to paint us all with a broad brush."

Still, whether entirely justified or not, the brush has come out many times in Arizona's history, turning the state into a stereotype that all too often is of its own making.

Think back to the flap over the Martin Luther King holiday in Arizona — which was created, then rescinded during the 1980s and finally re-established in 1992, at which point every state recognized the civil rights leader. It was a painful process. As with last year's anti-immigration law, charges of racism and bigotry flew. The state lost a Super Bowl over the controversy, boycotts ensued and the hip-hop group Public Enemy recorded a song in protest called "By The Time I Get To Arizona."

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People still often refer to this place as the "wild, wild West," in large part because of lenient gun laws that have been criticized in the wake of the shootings. The suspect in the Giffords shooting, 22-year-old Jared Loughner, was able to buy a Glock semiautomatic pistol at a big-box sports store despite past troubles with the law and being considered so mentally unstable that he was banned from his college campus.

The state law signed last year by Brewer did away with a requirement for residents 21 and older to attend safety classes and obtain gun licenses, allowing Loughner to carry his weapon, concealed, without a permit. Gun owners here may pack just about anywhere, including bars and restaurants. State legislators also are considering allowing students and teachers to have weapons on college campuses.

Arizona, Dupnik said, has become the "Tombstone of the United States of America" — a reference to the Arizona town where Wyatt Earp, "Doc" Holliday and the Clantons shot it out in the Gunfight at the OK Corral.

Lattie Coor, the former president of Arizona State University who runs a think-tank called the Center for the Future of Arizona, understands why residents of the state, and outsiders, may question or criticize.

"I guess what I would say to Arizonans, and to the nation, is we all ought to look a little more deeply into what this place is and what it's doing. We are not a renegade, hate-filled society," he said.

Slideshow: Mourning follows deadly shooting in Arizona (on this page)

His center worked with Gallup pollsters to measure the attitudes Arizonans hold toward their state and elected leaders. The results, released 18 months ago, found that just 10 percent believed state elected officials represented their interests. Arizona, Coor concluded, is more moderate, center-right than the rhetoric and partisan primary-dominated elections of recent years might suggest.

He noted that Democrats and Republicans split the last four gubernatorial elections. When President Obama was elected to office in 2008, a year that saw an increase in Democrats sent to Washington, Arizonans elected more Democrats than Republicans to its congressional delegation. And this last year, when Republicans won back control of the House in the anti-incumbent, conservative fervor sweeping the nation, the Arizona delegation swung back to a Republican majority.

'Microcosm'
Trimble put it this way: "We're a microcosm of the whole United States. We are you. We are everybody."

Image: Hearse arrives for funeral of Christina Taylor Green
Chris Carlson  /  AP
A hearse arrives at the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church for the funeral of 9-year-old Christina Green on Thursday in Tucson.

Others, nevertheless, find themselves harkening back to a different time. Sure, there have long been scandals and policies to scoff at — the "Keating Five" savings and loan investigation that involved two Arizona senators; the impeachment conviction of one governor and the court conviction and subsequent resignation of another; even the refusal to observe daylight saving time (supposedly because of the extreme summertime heat).

But the discourse, they said, has never seemed so unpalatable as it does now.

"We used to be really proud of this state. Now, it's almost like I don't want to go out and tell people I'm from Arizona anymore," said Jack August, a historian and executive director of the Barry Goldwater Center for the Southwest. "Instead of celebrating our wonderful diversity ... now it's like we've put up fences. We're off on our own. We're not going to play along."

Beth Grindell runs the Arizona State Museum on The University of Arizona campus, where thousands gathered Wednesday night to hear President Obama memorialize the shooting victims.

Grindell, like so many in this state, is a transplant, an Army brat who lived the world over but landed here in 1986. Even then, she said, Arizona had a bit of an image as a "nutcase state." But these past years have been different.

She and others point to the escalating problems with illegal immigration as the turning point; the Arizona border has become the busiest corridor for illegal immigration into the United States from Mexico. Add a recession and foreclosure crisis that hit the state's once-booming real estate market especially hard, and folks are feeling raw, angry, scared.

Hope for new attitude
"Fear gets directed at people," Grindell said, whether through policymaking, political posturing or prejudice.

And while she doesn't see any connection between Arizona's political climate and the events of Saturday, she hopes — as others do — that the tragedy inspires a new way of doing business and a new attitude among her fellow Arizonans.

"In my sadder moments I think this is what we needed to turn us around," she said.

Since the tragedy, many Arizonans have said they have found reasons for reassurance — whether in the heroic actions of those who brought down the gunman or the first responders who so quickly offered aid or, even, in the measured response of their political leaders.

Brewer dedicated her State of the State speech Monday to remembering those who had been injured and killed. News conferences about controversial legislative proposals were canceled. And Republicans and Democrats alike in the Legislature have pledged to try to bring decorum back to the political landscape.

Said Brewer in an e-mail to The Associated Press: "I believe that most Americans continue to see Arizona as full of decent, civil, honorable, and hardworking citizens of this grand Republic. We take great pride in the unified response of our communities and families to these tragic events, and refuse to allow acts of evil to bring us down."

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Patty Sirls, a 45-year resident of Tucson and the care coordinator at a Lutheran church, said this moment could serve as yet another turning point for Arizona.

"I really, truly believe that people will see beyond the evil that happened," she said. "I think we're doing a good thing. I think we're past being negative."

Added Grindell: "Maybe this is that button we had to hit before we say: 'No, this isn't the way we want to be.'"

Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Amanda Lee Myers, Gillian Flaccus and Raquel Maria Dillon in Tucson, Ariz.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Doctors: Giffords progress 'very encouraging'

Interactive: Giffords' shooting

Photos: Mourning follows deadly shooting in Arizona

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  1. A hearse carrying the remains of U.S. District Judge John Roll arrives at the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church before his funeral on in Tucson, Ariz., Friday, Jan. 14. Roll was killed in the Jan. 8 shooting that left six dead and wounded 13, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. (Morry Gash / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Mary Kool holds a single red rose outside the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church where the funeral of U.S. District Judge John Roll was to take place. (Eric Thayer / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Mourners arrive at the funeral service of Judge Roll. (Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A flag recovered from ground zero is raised during funeral service for 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green at the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Tucson, on Thursday, Jan. 13. Green was the youngest victim of the shooting rampage. Green was born on Sept. 11, 2001. (Mamta Popat / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Left to right, Roxanna and John Green, mother and father of Christina Taylor Green, and their son Dallas Green, arrive at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church for her funeral in Tucson on Thursday. (Mamta Popat / Pool via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. 2,000 mourners were in attendance at the funeral of Christina Taylor Green on Thursday in Tucson. (Mamta Popat  / Pool via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. People dressed as angels line the street leading to the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church where the funeral for Christina Taylor Green was to take place in Tucson on Thursday. Hundreds, dressed in white, lined the streets for more than a quarter mile of the funeral procession. (Mike Segar / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. John Green kisses his son Dallas on the head as the family follows the casket of Christina Taylor Green at her funeral mass in Tucson, on Thursday. At left is Christina's mother Roxanna and at right is Camden Grant, Christina's godmother's son. (Rick Wilking / Pool via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A young mourner carries flowers and a teddy bear to the funeral of Christina Taylor Green in Tucson on Thursday. (Mamta Popat / Pool via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cindy and John McCain listen during the funeral service for shooting victim Christina Taylor Green in Tucson on Thursday. (Greg Bryan / Pool via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A woman holds the service program from the funeral for 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green outside St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Tucson on Thursday. (Mike Segar / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. President Barack Obama speaks at the University of Arizona's McKale Memorial Center during the memorial service for victims of the shootings in Tucson. Obama told the crowd on Wednesday, Jan. 12, that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had opened her eyes for the first time since being shot in the head during the attack on Jan. 8. Six people were killed and 13 wounded by the lone gunman. (Jewel Samad / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Daniel Hernandez , the 20-year-old intern credited with likely saving the life of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, hugs her husband, NASA shuttle commander Mark Kelly, as U.S. first lady Michelle Obama applauds. (Jim Young / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. First lady Michelle Obama holds the hand of Rep. Gabrielle Gifford's husband, NASA shuttle commander Mark Kelly, as they listen to President Barack Obama speak. (Jim Young / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. People sing the national anthem during the memorial service on the University of Arizona campus in Tucson. (Chris Carlson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama at the start of the memorial event. (Jewel Samad / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. People line up at the University of Arizona campus for the memorial service. (David Becker / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Barb Tuttle is overcome with emotion at a makeshift memorial outside the office of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords on Jan. 12 in Tucson. (Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Women waiting in line for the memorial service look at the campus paper at the University of Arizona. (Rick Wilking / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Mark Kelly, husband of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, holds his wife's hand in the congresswoman's hospital room at University Medical Center on Jan. 9. (Offiice Of Gabrielle Giffords / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Ron Barber, 65, district director for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, is visited by Giffords aide Daniel Hernandez in his hospital room on Jan. 9. Hernandez rushed to Gifford's aid after she was shot. Hernandez said that while he held the wounded Giffords, he asked another bystander to put pressure on Barber's wounds. He also asked Barber for his wife's phone number and then shouted it out to someone so that Barber's wife, Nancy, could be informed of the shooting. (Gabrielle Giffords' Office / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama observe a moment of silence with White House staff members on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington on Jan. 10. (Jewel Samad / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Congressional staff observe a moment of silence to honor victims of the assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords on the steps of the Capitol in Washington. (Michael Reynolds / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Rachel Cooper-Blackmore, 9, adds a note to a memorial at Mesa Verde Elementary School in Tucson, on Jan. 10. Christina Taylor Green, 9, was killed during the Tucson attack. (Chris Carlson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Rachel Crabb, 5, holds hands with teachers, parents and other students during a moment of silence for her slain schoolmate, Christina Taylor Green, at Mesa Verde Elementary School on Jan. 9. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Candles are lit on Sunday at a makeshift memorial outside University Medical Center in Tuscon, Ariz., for those killed or wounded during the attack on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords . (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Ellie Steve, 6, from left, Lucia Reeves, 6, and Zoe Reeves, 18, gather for a candlelight vigil outside the office of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Ariz., on Sunday. (Chris Carlson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Six balloons representing the six people killed in Saturday's shooting spree, as part of a prayer vigil.Rep. Gabrielle Giffords battled for her life on Sunday after an assailant shot her in the head and killed six others in a rampage that has launched a debate about extreme political rhetoric in America. (Eric Thayer / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. People console each other at a makeshift memorial located outside the University Medical Center on Jan. 9 in Tucson, Ariz. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. The American flag flies at half-staff on the U.S. Capitol in Washington, on Jan. 9. In a brief statement Sunday morning, House Speaker John Boehner said flags on the House side of the Capitol in Washington will be flown at half-staff to honor the slain aide, Gabe Zimmerman, of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Thirty-year-old Zimmerman was among six killed Saturday. (Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. The congregation prays for the victims of Saturday's shooting in Tuscon, at the Pantano Christian Church in East Tucson, Jan. 9. (Rick Wilking / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Monty Edmonds, 36, left, of Tucson; Maggie Kipling, 34, of Tucson; Leigh Harris, 50, of Phoenix; Bella Furr, 21, of Tucson; and Sarah Herrmann, 22, of Tucson participate in a vigil at University Medical Center for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot during an event in front of a Safeway grocery store Jan. 8, in Tucson, Ariz. (Laura Segall / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Emergency personnel use a stretcher to move Rep. Gabrielle Giffords after she was shot in the head outside a shopping center in Tucson on Saturday. (James Palka / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Ernie Freuler fights back tears as Ray Lilley takes photos of the scene outside the office of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords after she was shot in the head by a gunman who opened fire outside a grocery store, Saturday, Jan. 8, in Tucson, Ariz. (Chris Morrison / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. A law enforcement officer stands outside the home of Jared L. Loughner, identified by federal officials as the suspect arrested in connection with the shooting of U.S Representative Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Ariz., Jan. 8. (Eric Thayer / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. People gather for a candlelight vigil for the victims of the shooting in Arizona at the steps of Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Saturday Jan. 8. (Jose Luis Magana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Vera Rapcsak and others hold signs outside the office of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords on Saturday after she was shot while meeting constituents. (Chris Morrison / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Emergency personnel attend to a shooting victim outside a shopping center in Tucson, Ariz. on Saturday, Jan. 8, where Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others were shot as the congresswoman was meeting with constituents. Rep. Giffords, 40, a Democrat, took office in January 2007, emphasizing issues such as immigration reform, embryonic stem-cell research, alternative energy sources and a higher minimum wage. The gunman shot Giffords in the head, seriously wounding her, and killed six other people in a shooting rampage at a public meeting in Tucson on Saturday. Giffords was airlifted to a hospital in Tucson where she underwent surgery. One of the doctors who treated her said he was optimistic about her recovery. (James Palka / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. A woman places flowers by the office of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords on Capitol Hill in Washington on Saturday after she was shot in Tucson by a gunman who opened fire, killing six people, including a U.S. district judge, John M. Roll. (Nicholas Kamm / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. In this photo provided by The White House, President Barack Obama talks with Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer about the shooting. (Pete Souza / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. Emergency personnel at the scene where Giffords and others were shot outside a Safeway grocery store in Tucson on Saturday. (Matt York / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. Law enforcement personnel work the crime scene on Saturday. (Eric Thayer / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. A medical helicopter evacuates victims from the shooting scene. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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