Amid grim news of school massacre, Newtown, Conn., becomes Everytown, America

Friday's deadly mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. has been one in a "terrible" year in terms of the number of incidences similar to this one.
December 14, 2012

Friday turned out to be the darkest day of the year. It was a day to hug your kids, or call a parent or a friend, or do something that for a moment might dispel some of that darkness.

The news got worse with every bulletin. Shots fired in an elementary school in Connecticut. Three dead. No, many dead. Children shot. Children killed. Kindergartners.

Newtown, Conn., became Everytown, America, on this grim Friday. By mid-afternoon, the scale of the horror became clear: Twenty children had been slain, plus six of their protectors. The crime took another sick turn with news that the killer was the son of one of the teachers, who died separately in her home. This appeared Friday night to be a matricide that evolved into mass murder.

All this happened during the holiday season, as people around the country prepared for a big shopping weekend, or got ready for relatives coming to town or kids coming home from college. This is family time, a season of joy. Light the candles, decorate the tree.

Tragedies can’t be weighed and measured easily, though we try to do that with statistics, and chart the number of dead and wounded in our mass shootings. Just this summer, the country dealt with the tragedy in Aurora, Colo., when a madman shot up a midnight movie. We all remember the terrible events at Virginia Tech and Columbine High School, crimes on an exaggerated scale, saturated in hatred and madness. America has become a nation all too familiar with mass murder, to the point that it seems to have become an inextricable element of our society.

But nothing could have prepared the country for what happened Friday. This felt different, a ratcheting up of the evil, because so many of the victims were small children.

On Twitter, people were almost speechless at first, struggling to fill even the 140-character allotment. Because what could you say? Other than “No, no, no”?

Silence is the right response in such a moment, decided David Lantigua, a moral theology professor at Catholic University:

“Our initial response should be careful not to attempt to explain away the suffering by identifying some cause,” he wrote in a long, anguished contemplation of the Connecticut shooting. “We are not prepared as a society to face such evil without first responding to the countless victims and their families. And this calls for silence. Only silence will enable us to weep and grieve with those who are weeping right now.”

The news coverage was sketchy much of the day. The spokesman for the state police used procedural language to describe the securing of the crime scene, the “several fatalities” and the fact that “the shooter is deceased.” There was no obvious motive for the heinous act, and the shooter was misidentified by news organizations for much of the day. TV crews, desperate for information, interviewed children on camera, which drew protests online from people who felt the interviews were invasive.

As Friday wore on, people around the country found their voices. Many spoke about gun violence, and the mechanization of depravity. Or they talked about mental illness and the lack of access to good mental health care.

“We’re sick,” said Patty Hassler, spokeswoman for the Children’s Defense Fund, a children’s advocacy organization. “It just makes you sick to your stomach, and your heart is pierced by every bullet that was shot.”

The president of the organization, Marian Wright Edelman, released a blistering statement:

“What is it going to take to stop the craziness of gun violence in this country? How young do the victims have to be and how many children need to die before we stop the proliferation of guns in our nation? We can’t just talk about it and then do nothing until the next shooting when we will profess shock again.”

The National Shooting Sports Foundation, which is based in Newtown and is the trade association for the firearms industry, issued a very brief statement: “Our hearts go out to the families of the victims of this horrible tragedy in our community. Out of respect for the families, the community and the ongoing police investigation, it would be inappropriate to comment or participate in media requests at this time.”

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said, “The horror of this day seems so unbearable, but we will lock arms and unite as citizens, for that is how Americans rise above unspeakable evil.”

Around midday, soon after the news broke, the president’s press secretary, Jay Carney, declined to get into gun control when he addressed the press corps:

“There is, I’m sure — will be, rather — a day for discussion of the usual Washington policy debates, but I don’t think today is that day.”

The president came into the press room later in the afternoon and kept his remarks apolitical, speaking as a father.

“The majority of those who died today were children — beautiful little kids between the ages of 5 and 10 years old,” Obama said, and then he paused for 12 seconds, seemingly trying to avoid choking up. “They had their entire lives ahead of them, birthdays, graduations, weddings” — he quickly wiped away a tear — “kids of their own.”

Every massacre is different, except for the central feature of the killer’s indifference to the suffering of the innocent. In China, hours before the Connecticut attack, a man with a knife assaulted and wounded 22 children and one adult outside an elementary school.

Evil? Some people won’t use that word, among them Melissa Grady, an assistant professor of social work at Catholic University. She’s an expert on sexual violence against children, and she and her colleagues deal with disturbing crimes and depraved individuals. She looks at multiple factors in a crime, looking at each stage in the decision process — what the experts call behavioral chain analysis.

“It’s everything, it’s prevention of mental illness, it’s gun control, it’s having a more responsive criminal justice system,” she said. She added, “Isn’t this a time for a conversation about better access to mental health services?”

She and her colleagues gathered for a Christmas party Friday afternoon, but they were all rattled by the news from Connecticut.

“I wish there was a quick, easy answer,” she said. “But there isn’t.”

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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