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This week’s mini-blizzard provided respite I’d been hoping for — no appointments, too cold to even think of going outside voluntarily, and streets packed with snow. I stayed in with the dogs, reading and cleaning and baking a dense chocolate cake scented with cloves while outside, the snow blew sideways.
The night before I’d hosted friends in the house, served lasagnas and Christmas music and lighted candles in the windows. The scene glowed with holiday cheer, but looking around the circle at this group of women I sing with, I couldn’t help notice that of our nine, half have enjoyed long careers as elementary school teachers. The school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut lingered over our holiday gathering and over the entire country this bleak midwinter night.
The day it happened, a week ago Friday, I flipped on the television and the defensive backlash had already begun. A reporter responsible for a steady news feed during the first few hours, got an expert spokesperson on the phone who immediately launched into a tirade about the school stabbings in China that same day and how this kind of thing could happen anywhere. The President of the United States’ somber spokesperson declared it “not the time” to talk about ready access to assault weapons in our country. Within hours, a call to arm schools and teachers rang out.
My rational son asked the obvious question: Where is the evidence, proof that an armed classroom or home or movie theater or church or public park is safer than an unarmed one? Why aren’t these stories of successful self-defense clogging the airways?
By that evening, it was clear a staggering 28 had died, including the gunman by his own hand and his mother, sleeping in her bed at home. The majority of the dead at Sandy Hook were six- and seven-year olds, gunned down in a matter of minutes. A day later it was widely known that the mother had legally purchased the guns. By Sunday, when the President visited Newtown and spoke to its townspeople and the nation from a podium at the local high school, the shooter’s mother was excluded from the list of victims. She, apparently, comprised her own separate crime scene.
What were the warning signs she missed? The messages ignored? The media was quick to diagnose and tag this 20-year old man’s mental illness, though few townspeople knew him at all. People want answers, the reporters declared, but would any explanation of his mental condition or this mother-son dynamic offer comfort? The principal’s daughter, remembering her brave mother in a television interview, didn’t want to know why. She wanted her mother back; she wanted it not to have happened.
As the week wore on, “every parent’s worst nightmare” became the catchphrase. As if any reasonable parent could have imagined anything so horrific happening at their kids’ school within minutes of dropping them off, at least not until now. A deranged young man outfitted in assault gear and armed to the nines with high-power weapons and a backpack full of ammo has certainly become America’s worst nightmare, but we can never predict where, only that it will happen again, so long as that tragic combination of twisted motive and available weapons of choice co-exist alongside a nation’s unwillingness to even exchange ideas about the problem.
As the week wore on, quiet voices of reason persisted. The rabbi in Newtown who oversaw the funeral of the first child spoke eloquently about the parents’ right and need to grieve. Our sad, gray President insisted that a meaningful response to the tragedy must begin now. In the New York Times, a college professor argued for a broad civic response “[to mitigate] the devaluation of human life” in American society, an action that would require businesses, congregations, schools, families and all citizens “to challenge and change the culture of violence, reading well beyond debates about the Second Amendment.” The task, he said, was nothing less than reweaving the social fabric.
The rabbi in Newtown said this is not just about guns, it is about a pervasive culture of violence. Conservative Republican Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman turned cable television host, announced he had reconsidered his previous position on gun control in the interest of public safety. Defending the status quo, he said, was no longer acceptable either for politicians or citizens.
In Newtown and across America, winter has arrived cold and fast, and we wait and hope for the coming of the light. It’s time to open our eyes.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.