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.