Does a gunman go into a church and start shooting up the choir? How about a hospital, pick off one baby after another in the newborn unit?
There seems to be no bottom anymore. This time, it was 20 children and six teachers and staff shot to death in an elementary school in Connecticut, plus the shooter's mother and, finally, the killer himself.
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Before, it was a high school, or rather, high schools, and a college campus. There was the midnight show at a movie theater, and the shopping mall earlier last week. A meet-and-greet with a congresswoman outside a grocery store. Amish schoolgirls. Any number of workplaces. An army base.
In other words, a list that could go on until no place was left off of it. Each incident shocks, to varying degrees, and then each fades. We accept so much, and then we accept some more.
In Baltimore, many of us barely take note of our own slow drip of murders, of mostly young, mostly black, mostly male victims. We give a quick read or listen to a news report, and as often as not, we give ourselves license to dismiss it as likely one thug killing another thug.
It shouldn't take a massacre like the one in Newtown, Conn., to shake us out of our self-imposed denial, and yet it does in our hierarchy of concern. Innocent children trump just about everyone.
And yet, the images that emerged from Newtown were hauntingly familiar from other scenes that have played out before us, whether it's Perry Hall High School here, or Columbine or, now, Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The anguished faces of those outside, trying to get information about what happened inside, and to whom. The relief of the lucky ones, the parents reunited with their physically safe if traumatized children.
And yet, the fact that these are the tiniest of schoolchildren provokes especially charged reactions — sorrow and rage and even shame. How can we not even protect a classroom of kindergartners from being massacred?
For some reason, I kept thinking of that part in "Catcher in the Rye," where you learn the meaning of the title, as Holden muses about how he'd like to be the guy that saves all the kids from falling off the cliff. And so Friday seems like a collective failure somehow.
It was crushing to hear what some of the kids said after they were rescued from the school, how they strained for points of references to describe what turned out to be the metallic claps of gunfire — all they could come up with was pots being banged or cans falling. Or how they talked about being led out of the school by police who told them not to look as they walked past what obviously was unspeakable carnage.
"We opened our eyes when we were outside," a fourth-grader said.
Out here with the rest of us, who now owe it to them to be the grown-ups.
I don't know what we should or shouldn't do at this point — there's obviously no simple prescription to make this never happen again — except that we can't just act as if Friday's dead are victims of some natural rather than man-made disaster.
There is, of course, the crying need to address gun control, that third, untouchable rail of politics, that issue that dare not speak its name. But shame on us if we move on from this tragedy, as we have others before it, without seriously questioning if our existing laws and whether are enough. They may be, they may not be, but can we really not even have the sane and rigorous discussion that would get us closer to answering that question?
Beyond policy issues, though, Friday's shooting raises other questions that are harder to answer in a different way. Who are these people who live among us, harboring not just violent thoughts but the determination to carry them out, in the neighborhood movie theater, or the local elementary school?
We don't know much about the apparent Newtown killer, Adam Lanza, at this point. We may never know how he got to this terrible point, where he's aiming a gun not just at his mother but on an entire school of children and teachers, something so unimaginable it's like the human equivalent of a black hole.
Yes, there are monsters in our midst, whether they're shooting up a camp in Norway or schools from Dunblane to Beslane to now Newtown. Maybe they operate so far under the radar, or live double lives or, as someone will invariably be quoted as saying at some point, kept to themselves.
But it's hard to believe that someone can keep that much murderous rage, and acquire the means to make good on it, solely to themselves until that final terrible moment. And yet, seemingly, they do.
As quickly as the suspected shooter's name leaked out on Friday, everyone had found a Facebook page for him — and Ryan Lanza's just as rapid and understandably angry responses that it wasn't him. And indeed, it wasn't: the man identified was his brother.
At a time when we seem to be a click away from knowing so much, it turns out we know even less.