The community reaction to the shootings of Jan. 8, 2011, was spontaneous and inspiring.

Tucsonans flocked to the site of the tragedy at the shopping center at North Oracle and West Ina roads. They gathered on the lawn of the hospital where U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords fought for life and where those wounded were being treated.

They brought candles, flowers, stuffed toys, photos and messages of love to those sites and to the office where the congresswoman's staff gathered in the following days to continue her work.

They packed the president's speech four days later at McKale Center, attended services for the six people who died and lined the streets when Giffords left Tucson for a Houston rehabilitation center after two weeks in the intensive-care unit at the University of Arizona Medical Center.

Many sought ways to preserve the feelings of compassion and hope by creating lasting memorials, foundations, scholarships, community events and campaigns for civility in our public discourse.

"Want to speak better." - Giffords' book

In this era of so many words and so little thought, it's tempting to offer up Gabby Giffords' dilemma as antidote. There is obviously so much thought behind the words she manages to get out.

Attempting to reform the way we talk to each other was an immediate response to the shootings of Jan. 8. It is symbolic of our fractured political discourse that it became instantly controversial with a backlash against Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik's remarks blaming the media and the rancorous tone of our political debate for the shootings.

A year later, the sheriff is less angry, but not conciliatory toward those who sent nasty messages and tried to recall him from office.

"There are a lot more angry people, bigoted people, hateful people in our entire society than I previously believed," he said in an interview last month.

"Conversely, the good-news situation is that the vast majority of America is not that way. I think civil discourse is perhaps becoming a little more common, and I think people are fed up with the angry rhetoric."

"Our instincts for empathy"

Four days after Dupnik's outburst, President Obama visited Tucson and carefully threaded the needle, encouraging positive results.

"Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let's use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy," he told mourners, survivors and citizens gathered at McKale Center.

Back at his room in the Arizona Inn that evening, Fred DuVal sat down at his laptop to propose a way of doing that - the creation of an institute for civil discourse at the University of Arizona.

Duval, a former aide to Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt and to President Clinton, is a Tucson native and was chairman of the Arizona Board of Regents at the time. The tragedy of Jan. 8, he said, was Tucson's "Dallas moment."

He wanted his hometown, his state and his country to extract some good from it. He contacted UA administrators and talked with Giffords' husband, Mark Kelly. DuVal said Kelly gave him the go-ahead to "seize the moment."

The National Institute for Civil Discourse was created, funded and staffed in record time for such things. Within six weeks, it had a national board co-chaired by two former presidents. DuVal made the call to Bill Clinton and Kelly contacted George H.W. Bush.

The institute now has $2 million in funding and has already given out its first research grants.

It is not yet in a position to referee the hard edges of our political debates and is involved in an internal debate about how much of that sort of thing it should even do.

It receives emails daily urging it to step into disputes, said director Brint Milward, who is also director of the UA School of Government and Public Policy. He wants the institute to advocate for civil discourse without becoming part of the "never-ending food fight" that is contemporary politics.

Civility

Ron Barber, Giffords' district director, began a separate campaign for civility while still in intensive care, being treated for gunshot wounds to the face and groin.

He enlisted his family to help him create the Fund for Civility, Respect and Understanding.

It is putting together campaigns to blunt bullying in schools, to enlist faith leaders to call for a better public discourse and to expand awareness of the signs of mental illness.

Barber and DuVal both invoke the political atmosphere of an earlier time in Arizona as a model for public discourse that allows vigorous debate without rancor and name-calling. Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater and Democratic Rep. Morris K. Udall held fast to their respective conservative and liberal ideals while working together for the good of Arizona and maintaining a lifelong friendship.

Udall's son, Mark, now a Democratic U.S. senator from Colorado, took the call for civility to the national stage in late January. He proposed a symbolic gesture for the president's State of the Union address. What if members of Congress sat together instead of dividing the House chamber by party?

Udall and his colleagues mingled, with Arizona Republican Rep. Jeff Flake and Democratic Rep. Raúl Grijalva flanking an empty chair that represented the missing Giffords.

The president took note of the arrangement in his speech, but said commitment would be measured, not in sitting together that evening, but in working together in the days that followed.

By that measurement, the era of comity was a short one. Few would call the most recent congressional session a triumph of congenial bipartisanship, though it had its moments.

When Giffords visited the House on Aug. 1 to cast a vote in favor of a stalemate-ending budget bill, the effect was magical.

It lasted for an entire 15 minutes, said Mark Kimble, Giffords' press aide, who is still trying to comprehend why he was spared that day, when people to the left and the right of him were shot. He'd like to think some good will come of it.

"Maybe Ron (Barber) is on to something," he said - aiming at a younger audience with his fund's emphasis on school programs to end bullying.

Kimble, who joined Giffords staff after a long career at the Tucson Citizen, isn't certain we can reach the adults.

"I'm really hopeful. I'd like to be hopeful, but in the day-to-day heated discussions going on, it's hard … . I wish, I wish it would change."

A struggle, not a fight

The UA's Milward said the national institute's task is to reach the "vast middle."

"There is a point on the left and the right at which people will say, 'This is a fight and the point is to win.' The vast middle views it a struggle, not between good and evil, but between better and worse.

"We need to listen to each other."

Problem is, we're not inclined to think that way.

We are empathetic at first, said experimental philosopher Shaun Nichols, a UA professor of philosophy. Cries are contagious among babies. Signs of distress trigger empathetic tears.

Even monkeys, says Nichols, feel empathy. In one famous experiment, monkeys stopped eating when the lever they had to push for food created a shock and a scream from the monkey in the next cage.

Humans, however, develop ways of suppressing that natural empathy. "You just can't live that way," said Nichols.

Melissa Giffords recognized early that her sister was exceptional in that respect.

"Most human beings care about a relatively small group of people," Giffords' sister says in the book "Gabby." "They care about their family, their friends, their neighbors, some of the people they work with. Maybe that adds up to 50 people. Gabby's number is way past 50. Her number is in the hundreds of thousands - or the millions. I started realizing it when we were kids. That makes her different from the rest of us."

The rest of us do think about others when confronted with their suffering, said Nichols. Given the chance in experiments, most people turn out to be Good Samaritans, he said, especially when there is no one else around to help.

Circle of sympathy

In "The Better Angels of Our Nature," Stephen Pinker, author and Harvard professor of psychology, writes that we have expanded our "circle of sympathy" over the centuries. Contrary to the sense we get watching the news each day, we have just lived through the most peaceful decade of all time.

Homicide rates have fallen sharply since mid-century. We have abolished many forms of cruelty - slavery, for instance. We have a lower rate of homicides and fewer numbers killed, proportionally, in wars.

We are more tolerant of race, ethnicity and sexual orientation - our sphere of "others" is shrinking. Education, travel, communications, integration all contribute.

There is a cautionary trend, however.

Our explosion of media in all forms lets us become more tribal in our outlook. We have the capacity to create "The Daily Me," seeking out only those views that reinforce our own, said Kate Kenski, assistant professor of communication at the UA.

Kenski, who is working with her students on one of the first grants awarded by the National Institute for Civil Discourse, said that trend could end up reinforcing our natural inclinations to discard the worth of others' beliefs and opinions.

"This makes civil discourse difficult, especially now," she said. "We have forums where we can vent and receive confirmation of our views."

Kenski is studying the comments posted on the Arizona Daily Star's website, trying to identify and categorize those that stop the conversation, that work against a more civil public conversation - name-calling, vulgarity and denigration of people and their beliefs.

That sort of thing was standard practice in the 2010 political campaign, which Barber called "the height of incivility and disrespect." "The health-care town halls, the gatherings outside our office were just over the top."

He sees a change already. "I really think there has been a lessening of the harsh rhetoric," he said.

"I think Tucson could be a model for other communities. I think we can do some things here that can set a tone."

The mentally ill

One tone he would like to set is in our awareness of mental illness.

Erasing its stigma would go a long way toward preventing tragedy in the future, he said. "Bring it out of the shadows. Treat it like we treat cancer and heart disease."

Barber has been open about his own diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder from the shootings. His fund is enlisting other prominent figures in the community to talk about their struggles with mental illness.

Neal Cash sees progress. As president and CEO of the Community Partnership of Southern Arizona, Cash said the demand for training to recognize symptoms of mental illness mushroomed after the shootings and has not abated in the year since.

"Obviously, January 8 was the game-changer for us." His organization has trained 18 instructors in the past year and offered 29 training sessions to more than 600 people.

"I think a lot of mental illness is typified by stigma, and stigma is the result of fear, ignorance and not understanding the illness. I actually think a lot can be done. The face of mental illness is not Jared Loughner."

Cash is proud of his community. "What has occurred since January 8 has been pretty special. To look at something that is so horrific and tragic and to be this resilient. I think we handled it in a pretty healthy way as a community."

Barber describes himself as optimistic, but not naive. Tucson may not be able to change the world, he said, but "I think we can do some things here that can set a tone."

"If this tragedy can do anything," he said, "I hope it can really elicit more compassion and caring for each other."

Eight pages of coverage

In their own words

People affected by the Jan. 8 attack share acts of kindness that helped get them through the year. C2-5

Sense of security

Our perception of safety may never be the same. C6

Live coverage

From dawn to dusk, Star reporters and photographers visit vigils, volunteer projects, hikes and art installations all put on to remember Tucson's dark day. C7 and C8

Writer's note: It is difficult to avoid personal conflicts of interest when an event of this magnitude affects a town this close-knit. Many of us at Star are connected to Ron and Nancy Barber through their son-in-law, Gawain Douglas, who worked here many years as a page designer. Other members of Giffords' staff were our colleagues or competitors in journalism. My family and the Barber family have known each other for nearly 20 years. My wife is a member of the advisory board of the Fund for Civility, Respect and Understanding.