Not again. Here. In a school.
All over Connecticut Friday, people greeted each other with downcast eyes and a few mumbled words. Many cried, churches opened for prayer, events were canceled. Some veteran police officers and news reporters found it hard to keep their composure. Even the president fought back tears while speaking of the deaths.
The day felt, to those who remember it, like the somber, chilly day in 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was shot.
Now, as then, the entire state was stunned, dumbstruck, heartbroken. What could drive a fellow human being to walk into a school, a nurturing place, and begin shooting and brutally killing innocent children and educators? What depth of grief for parents who happily sent their beautiful kids off to school Friday morning, maybe held their hands at the bus stop, and now will never see them alive again?
This is not supposed to happen, here, in civilized Connecticut, with its strict gun laws, good schools and churches on the village green.
And yet children were being led out of school and told to close their eyes. It's hard not to think that it's the adults who have been closing their eyes.
The Next Days
According to police, a gunman killed 26 people, including 20 children, before apparently taking his own life Friday morning at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown in one of the worst school shooting massacres in U.S. history. As President Barack Obama said, there isn't a parent in America who doesn't feel overwhelming grief. We think of the dad desperately trying to get information about his 6-year-old in the hospital. The child was the only family he has.
We are in this life, it's been said, to help each other get through it. We do this with ritual and process. In the next days and week, there will be the rituals of wakes and funerals, memorial services and assemblies. They are there for a reason — they help, they are what we have, we must embrace them. There are few occasions as emotionally painful as a child's funeral, and few as necessary.
And then there will be process, starting with the law enforcement and medical investigations, and perhaps leading to changes in public policy. Or — looking at recent mass shootings — talk of change but no actual new laws or policies.
The first response to mass shootings usually has to do with gun control. With the country awash in handguns — 300 million by one estimate — it's not clear if guns can be controlled any longer. The National Rifle Association and other gun lobbyists can take great pride; they've brought gun ownership within reach of every psycho and wing nut with a crazed rage to kill.
Yet we must try.
President Obama said Friday that "we're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics." OK, let's start by reinstating the federal ban on assault weapons that Congress so cravenly allowed to expire several years ago.
Hunters don't want or need assault rifles with military magazines; these have no civilian application. Yet it is a tribute to the power of the gun lobby and the sniveling cowardice of Congress that there have been more than 60 multiple shootings since a member of Congress, Rep. Gabby Giffords, was shot in Arizona in 2011 and no action has been taken.
Given the unfortunate availability of guns, it behooves us to examine other areas. In the two mass shootings in Greater Hartford in the past 15 years, at lottery headquarters in Newington in 1998 and a beer distributorship in Manchester in 2010, the perpetrators were disgruntled employees. There is work to do both with workplace security and with mental health assistance for workers who need it. That is true of society at large.
The government has failed to protect us from shooters, but we have also failed to protect ourselves by getting help for friends or family members who need it. We need to think about social outcasts, about drug abuse, about violent video games and films, about what the Internet is being used for.
But that comes after the ritual, the tears, the incomprehensible sorrow. Kids huddled in one classroom said all they wanted was Christmas. It was not an unreasonable request.