MIAMI — When Gabrielle Giffords first ran for Congress in 2006, I asked her priorities. She named two: sensible gun control and public health care for the mentally fragile.

The ironies only start there.

I’m from Tucson, and she is my voice in Washington. But in my book "Escaping Plato’s Cave," I cite her as the sort of open-minded lawmaker we need to counter partisan lunacy.

Giffords was perfectly suited to the task, an ex-Republican Democrat, crack shot, Spanish-speaking blonde-haired Jew, who ran El Campo Tires, a thriving business.

She had been a cornerstone of sense and reason in an Arizona legislature not noted for either.

In that first interview with me, Giffords said America badly needs its two-party system, with effective governors who rise above narrow interests to consider all citizens.

“We have to make sure we elect people who understand complex problems, who value other cultures, other opinions, who can foster good foreign policy. We have to elect people who are intelligent, hard-working, fair and just,” she said.

For that, Giffords added, we need better schools, which teach children to understand and appreciate a larger world.

Since then, America in general and Arizona in particular have plunged headlong in the opposite direction.

Giffords was appointed to the House Armed Services Committee. In 2007, back from Iraq, she told me she was appalled at how badly Washington handled post-war recovery.

Since then, the same flawed military policies and uncontrolled excesses by civilian contractors have expanded into Afghanistan.

Closer to home, she talked sense about the Mexican border. Running a bilingual business, she knew the nuances of what faraway pundits lump together as “immigration.”

True enough, armed drug smugglers and stone-cold killers are not on our A-list. But that is a thin fringe. And Mexicans, contrary to myth, seldom nap under cacti.

As simplistic debate raged, Giffords treads a precarious path. Sometimes she seems too right-wing for her more liberal backers. Today, grays are not in fashion.

She supports border patrols but opposes vigilantes. She bears arms herself but argues that sensible controls are essential for reasons that are now grimly obvious.

Giffords’ most vociferous opponents oppose her stand on health care. She calls it a simple human right. Many Arizonans believe the rich should get to live longer.

Last spring, someone smashed out the windows of her Tucson office.

Giffords’ last victory was so close it took three days to count. The ex-Marine Tea Party candidate opposed Social Security and called Medicare a public dole.

One campaign event was advertised: “Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly.”

That was after Sarah Palin invited voters to take aim at Democratic candidates. Giffords was among those whose face was fixed within gun-sight crosshairs.

No one is yet sure whether the 22-year-old assailant had an accomplice. But in the larger sense, he hardly acted alone.

Barry Goodfield, a world-savvy psychotherapist who lives near Phoenix, predicted correctly that friends would describe “quite a nice boy [who] was seen a loner.”

But, he said, this is a clear example of what happens when a modern wired society does too little to address perceived injustice and imbalance.

“Remember that somebody loaded that human bio-computer,” Goodfield said, “and unless we as a society learn how to identify and de-program these deranged loners, their numbers will grow.”

When we first met, Gabby chose an open-air table at Ike’s, a coffee joint where any disgruntled constituent could heave a chocolate cruller. Her out-of-shape aide was hardly a bodyguard.

Her job, she believes, is to listen without filters, to stay as long as necessary to hear points of view, to produce facts and figures when asked.

That was why she drew such a crowd at Safeway, people like Christina Green, now dead at 9, who wanted to learn how she could grew up to make America better.

Editor's note: This story was updated to correct a name.

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