The image is now iconic: a Newtown boy riding a school bus flashed the "V-sign" as he headed back to class for the first time since the horrific massacre last month.
What draws people — like that little boy — to the V? In times of trouble or triumph, in sadness or hope, at political rallies and sporting events, we often invoke the V. The V's list in history is long: Winston Churchill during World War II. Anti-Vietnam War activists in the 1960s. The pro-democracy group Solidarity in Poland during the Cold War. Protesters of the Arab Spring. (And that's just a few examples).
So why the V and why now? The sign does three unique things that are worth noting as we begin the long process of healing from the events at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
First, the V-sign empowers us when we feel helpless. In the wake of the Newtown shooting, many around the country asked, "Why?" We felt violated. Normally the site of playfulness, an elementary school turned into a nightmare. If a place like Sandy Hook is not safe, where is?
And we can imagine what the surviving children feel. How scared must that boy have been, riding the bus for the first time since that violent day?
The V helps us fight back. In academic parlance, it reclaims our "agency." We feel defiant, just like Churchill when he bared the symbol during the Battle of Britain in 1940. (He called it the "V for Victory.") At the time, the British seemed on the brink of defeat as they fought the Axis powers without allies. With the bombing of London and the U-boat blockade, things looked grim. But, the Brits soldiered on, displaying the V. In the face of seeming military disaster, they vowed to "never surrender" to Nazi oppression.
With the V, we resist an unfair world. We stand up and say: "I am one person, I am little, and the world's problems are large, but I will not give up." That, in a nutshell, is what the little Newtown boy did on his way to school.
In all likelihood, the child never heard of Churchill or World War II. He displayed the V unconsciously, a reflex he probably learned from television or his parents. Still, the sign — ingrained in our culture — allowed him to fight back in a moment of confusion and pain.
Second, the V lets us communicate. The sign transcends languages and cultures. It doesn't matter if you speak English or Spanish or Chinese. Anyone can understand the Newtown boy and his hope — a hope for a better world, without the horror of the Sandy Hook massacre. In this regard, the V shown with the palm facing out is a unique hand gesture — every other gesticulation, from the middle finger to "thumbs-up," vary in meaning around the world. Not so the V.
Finally, the V connects us. When we can communicate together, when we hope for a better world together, we become a community. In World War II, the underground resistance groups of occupied Europe took the "V for Victory" as their sign, symbolically joining hands with the people of London and Manchester in the fight against Hitler. After Pearl Harbor in 1941, Americans began sporting the V — cementing the new Allied alliance around a common symbol.
Years later, the common symbol of the V helped forge the Arab Spring, giving the different countries and constituencies in the Arab world an emblem of freedom around which to rally. In the Vietnam War it did much the same, uniting the various factions that made up the anti-war movement around the ideal of peace.
In the wake of the Newtown massacre, maybe that little boy and his V can unite a divided America around a common vision, a vision of a world with no more Sandy Hooks.
Nathaniel Zelinsky, 21, of New Haven is a senior majoring in history at Yale University.
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