December 15, 2012
Driving into Newtown, Connecticut yesterday afternoon, there was crying. Hugs. Candles. Downcast faces. Whispered greetings and forced smiles. More than a thousand people attended a memorial service held last night for the dead children and their guardians murdered in school by a deranged young man, in what has become an utterly depressing and mundane public ritual in contemporary American life.
Some of the young survivors of the attack came with their parents, as did many other children. Coming only hours after the killings, with bodies still lying in the cordoned-off school, the service felt like a defiant and close-knit gesture of a small community confronted with a tragedy from which, for once, young children could not be sheltered. In fact, it is an involuntary new American rite of passage to become intimately familiar with shattering violence.
Two fourth graders said under the glare of a TV light, “the teachers didn’t tell the younger children exactly what happened, to protect them, but we knew.” When asked if they weren’t very young themselves, they didn’t know what to say.
For it may not be unreasonable any longer to believe that fourth graders – ten or eleven years old – know full well, if not with specific personal experience before yesterday, what a mass shooting is and what it means. Just last week, there were two killings in an Oregon shopping mall. The Aurora, Colorado in July at a movie theater showing the latest Batman film was conceivably an event they might have been taken to. Certainly they’ve seen news reports and the consequent worries of their parents and teachers.
And these teachers and school administrators had protocols in place that may have saved many lives. They locked their classroom doors, hid under desks and in closets, had trained for and thought of the unthinkable, as previous generations did with Cold War fallout shelters. And just as those preparations would have been of dubious use in a nuclear war, so too can the best plans only mitigate, but never entirely deter a determined and suicidal attacker like Adam Lanza yesterday.
There was a massive concentration of media; including myself, that local residents could only have felt was intrusive. The footprint seems to rival that of the national political conventions. Most of us, I hope, did our best to be compassionate and sensitive, but the sheer impact of thousands of journalists creates its own logic of infrastructure that’s overwhelming and unstoppable.
And yet they mostly, if reluctantly, welcomed us. They understood that they went from being a prosperous and anonymous small town one moment to having the eyes of the world upon them the next. Our endeavors become automatic clichés because of the magnified scale. Clichés by definition start out as good ideas. Pure documentary: the who-what-where-when-why, the show-it-as-it-is, remains the necessary and appropriate mission of crisis journalism. The people of Newtown understood this; they gave interviews, allowed photography, and shared their public mourning and shock. And in a few days, as they and we all know, attention will shift elsewhere.
I mentally compared the scene to the massacre at Virginia Tech that I covered five years ago. At that time my broader thoughts revolved around the unspoken cultural tensions that intersected a Korean-American student, Seung-Hui Cho, with killing 32 people and himself on a rural, predominately white and Southern college campus. This time, not only was the killer a native son of the community, but his victims were far too young to have even implausibly been the focus of any racial or cultural animosity and alienation.
But of course it’s fundamental senselessness that unites all these killings, or “mass casualty events” as we now call them, more than any psychological specifics or explanations. As Mother Jones reports, over the last 30 years there’s been an average of a mass killing (with four or more victims) every six months in the United States. This year alone there were six such incidents with 38 dead before yesterday. And that’s not counting robbery, gang-violence, or more “traditional” categories of crime and slaughter.
So we experience now, again, the hand-wringing recriminations, deja-vu debates over gun control, and ceremonies of heartfelt emotion and anguished loss. The grim ritual will have been enacted once more. This is another new normal.
PHOTOGRAPHS & TEXT by Alan Chin / facingchange.org