Massacre at Newtown: A Defining Moment for America
It seems to me that there were so many things on our mind before last Friday afternoon. The newspapers and television news and blogs were full of talk about the approaching appointment with the Fiscal Cliff. We buzzed here locally about who was going to start at quarterback for the Washington Redskins on Sunday—and who was going to be the next Secretary of State, this town being what it is.
People were out Christmas shopping. The streets and many shops were clogged, and the highways were full of irritations. Burl Ives once again ruled with his Christmas song on the radio, and people had already folded in a shooting-with-casualties at a mall in Oregon as if it was the latest among many such horrors that were now part of our daily lives. We were getting used to news like that.
On AOL news in the early afternoon, there was a vague, undetailed reference to gunfire at a school in Connecticut, and that the shooter was dead. I saw it briefly, it nagged at me as a kind of “another one already,” and I promptly forgot about it.
About an hour later—precision was not the mainstay of the day—that little note had become a big headline: 28 or 27 dead in elementary school shooting; 18 children dead. (It ended up to be 20 children dead). I stared at the headline, and there was a picture of I don’t remember what. The numbers were staggering, shocking, almost impossible to take in. And so that day truly began, and we were swallowed up in it whole.
The details only got worse: 20 children, ages six and seven, more girls than boys, and six teachers and administrators had been killed, gunned down by a young man armed with an assault rifle and more in the space of a few minutes at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., a small (27,000 plus) commuter town were such monstrosities are never imagined even in the darkest of nights.
Initially, the story emerged in half-truths and confusion, misinformation that seemed to be coming from the shock and fog of a kind of war in which small children and their protectors were the victims of an act, which so far defied any real clues as to motivation and appeared to be beyond understanding.
It pinned us all to our hearts, as we watched and listened. I think and suspect that even in our sleep we saw the children, all the children we knew and thought about them, and embraced them and comforted them and tried to save them in a dream we never dreamt. We saw anguished parents rushing to the parking lot of the school, as if driven by demons. We saw children rushing out. We heard conflicting information about the killer, first misidentified as his brother, and about his mother, who was first believed to be a kindergarten teacher at Sandy Hook, but turned out to have no connection to the school. She was killed by her son in the home she shared with him before he embarked with grim purpose on his journey to the school, dressed in video death game black, armed with two handguns and the semi-automatic weapon.
His name was Adam Lanza and his mother’s name was Nancy. He killed himself when he heard approaching policemen enter the school, but he had enough ammunition to do much more damage than he did. What he did was bad enough. Just days before Christmas, he robbed parents of their children, and everyone else’s hopes for the season.
No point in dwelling on him, beyond the morbid curiosity that sparks such interest. I remembered my son, now in his forties and living in Las Vegas, when he was that age. I still remember how it felt when he bit his tongue in a spatter of blood when he was only two or so, and how for some seconds, I could not breathe. I could only imagine the pain of the parents—because when your children are that young, you want them first and ever to be safe and because you think a breath will knock them down. A paper cut looks like tragedy, and you love them more than yourself.
Immediately, the television chorus read the litany of other names—Aurora, Colo., the shootings at Fort Hood, the killings at Columbine, the precursor of every shot fired in calculated madness on school grounds, the killings at a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, at McDonald's, in work places, in parking lots and malls.
But this . . . this man targeted children, the children of Newtown, to be sure, but all our children, just the same. I live now in a neighborhood of new children, if you will, there’s been a baby boom of new young parents in the last decade. I’ve seen a generation growing up, from the ground up, so to speak—a new baby across the street. Samantha and her dog Edith down the street, Patrick around the corner and all the kids at the daycare center. I thought about them through the weekend.
The tragedy was a reminder that the President of the United States is a parent as well as a president, no more so than in his initial reaction to the tragedy, when he was speaking of the children and said “they were beautiful little kids.” He stopped, for a few second obviously stricken. It made headlines on the news—the president cried.
We all did, in one way or another. We forgot ourselves and thought of others, what consolation might come and when. And in the chronicles of the Newtown Bee, the local newspaper, there were tales of vigils, and pictures of stuffed animals, and glasses with candles, and services and memories of the victims, and the heroic sacrifices of the teachers and the first responders. All of this has been chronicled and don’t bear repeating by me, but none of it will be forgotten.
And now—and if not now, then when?—the debate, the cry for legislation, for gun safety, for a great national debate, or even—with great hope—a grass roots, parent-led movement that might take on our culture which has variously been called a culture of violence, guns or death. It should include from the view of non-but-not-un-Americans a puzzlement at this country’s attachment to guns, its almost defiant embrace of shooting targets, beer cans, critters and human beings—or as one congressman from Texas suggested that if the principal of the school had had an automatic pistol, she could have blown his head off.
This we know: the National Rifle Association, somewhat like a Grover Norquist on no tax increases, have a mysterious power to exact political allegiance on pain of losing elections in support of the right to bear arms, which not coincidentally benefits the manufacturers of guns enormously. We know for a fact that we lead the world in mass shootings, and homicides by gun, automatic or otherwise. We know that as the president and any number of people of good will have said in the wake of this slaying, that “enough is enough.” It is not “guns don’t kill people, people kill people, or even people with mental problems kill people.” Every person who has slaughtered others is different from every other person who has slaughtered people—they lost their jobs, they have been diagnosed as mentally ill, they’re seeking fame, they’re loners, they hate (the U.S., the country, the people that bullied them, their girlfriends, their employees, Batman and Robin, pick one). But they all have one thing in common: they killed numerous people and in this last case, innocent children, with guns. Look for the connection, and there it is, the pop pop sound at various volumes and speeds of guns.
How sad is this, that children should leave their blood in classrooms. How sad are these days: from the pulpit at the Washington National Cathedral, a minister called for action, and children in Christmas red sang “Silent Night” at a TV show's opening and in a Newtown church fathers hugged their children who hugged their stuffed animals.
Newtown First Selectman Pat Llodra said at the service that “it is a defining moment for Newtown but it will not define us.”
It is a defining moment for the rest of us, also, and what we do—or fail to do—will define us.