The Real Lesson of the Tucson Tragedy

On Jan. 8, a man at war with "normal" unleashed other forces also at war with normal, people who are turning our politics into a freak show for their own cynical or sanctimonious reasons

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Illustration by Sean McCabe for TIME

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How Normal Fights Back
When Dorwan Stoddard heard the explosions, he needed only a moment to realize it was gunfire. He told his wife Mavy to take cover under some folding chairs, then threw himself on top of her. His body absorbed the fatal shots. George Morris, a retired Marine who loves a robust political argument, tried to do the same for his wife Dorothy. He took two bullets, but not the one that killed her. John Roll, the chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Arizona, had dropped by to thank Giffords for her support of the overstretched judiciary. Now he lay dying, along with Gabe Zimmerman, the Congresswoman's smiling director of community outreach, and Phyllis Schneck, a lifelong Republican who wanted to say a few admiring words to her Democratic Representative.

All casualties in a war on normalcy. But now watch what the normal folks do. As Loughner nears the end of his extended ammunition clip, an unidentified man in the crowd stands up beside the rampaging gunman, grabs a folding chair and smashes it across Loughner's back. As the gunman staggers, his left hand flies out, and Bill Badger, a retired U.S. Army colonel, grabs it and twists. "Bill is a man of action," his wife later explained.

Badger has blood streaming from a head wound as he shoves the killer to the ground. Screaming and thrashing, Loughner digs in his pocket for another clip, but Patricia Maisch, who had been wondering a split second earlier what it would feel like if a bullet hit her, snatches the ammo and pries it from his grip. And now a looming doctor named Steve Rayle throws himself onto Loughner's midsection, and burly Joseph Zamudio comes dashing up from Walgreens and falls on Loughner's flailing legs. "I didn't think about it," Zamudio said afterward. "I just heard something and tried to help."

The shooting is over.

Nearby sits Daniel Hernandez, a young intern for Giffords. He was directing traffic when he heard the first shots. He ran toward the danger, figuring that his first-aid training would be needed. He arrived to find Giffords horribly wounded, in danger of choking on her own blood, and now is holding her upright in his lap and soothing her as he presses his hand onto her shattered face to stem the bleeding. She seems to know what is happening — which is, among other things, that this young man is saving her life.

"Of course you're afraid," Hernandez mused later. "You just kind of have to do what you can."

How many times have we heard this story? The one about people rising to the occasion, storming the cockpit of the hijacked jet, racing into the burning building, tackling the gunman, saving a life. They hear something and try to help. Of course they're afraid, but they just have to do what they can. This is how normal fights back, by rejecting fear and choosing courage.

Christina Green's birthday was Sept. 11, 2001. Like all 9/11 babies, she entered this world as a ray of hope on a dark, dark day. Her short life was radiant with possibility and promise. Her death, and everything wrought that day by Jared Loughner, was senseless and wrenching — but in no way was it an expression of what we've become. Don't let anyone tell you it is.

With reporting by Alex Altman and Katy Steinmetz / Tucson; Cleo Brock-Abraham / New York; and Massimo Calabresi, Steven Gray and Mark Thompson / Washington

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