Newtown, the Monday After: Progress Out of Sorrow?

In a mysterious, confusing case, there are so far very few surprises, but there are already lessons worth learning.

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It is the Monday following the Friday on which the second deadliest school shooting in U.S. history took place, at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. Like many of us, I watched the news all weekend. I watched it when I got up in the morning on Saturday, hoping not to miss a police press conference. I kept the TV on while I did work, which I stopped when the first press conference came on around 10, and then I stayed glued to the TV and Twitter until the second one eventually came on as well, and then after that, all through the weekend, for anything I might be able to learn. Even knowing that there would be no sufficient answers, not at this early date and not really ever—because even if we can know the truth about what precipitated the violence, what does that change about its effects?—I wanted to know at least clues to the answers. It's hard to stop trying to apply logic to a situation like this one, even as there is little logic to grasp. When the chief medical examiner finally spoke, we found that all of the deaths had been ruled a homicide, of course. All of the victims were shot more than once. The investigation was still ongoing, with no real new information about it to be released at this point. In a mysterious, confusing case, there are so far very few surprises.

There has been at least one, though: On Saturday night, Robbie Parker, the dad of 6-year-old Emilie, who died in the shooting, stood in front of a microphone and told the world about his daughter. This was clearly in no way easy for him; his voice was shaking at times. After talking about the beauty and kindness of his oldest, a sister to two other little girls, he told the press he'd answer any question he deemed reasonable, and went on to answer them all. He expressed empathy for the family of Adam Lanza, and love for the people of his town, where he and his family had moved from Utah just eight months before. I was at the gym watching this, and I couldn't keep from crying at Parker's poise and strength in an unimaginable scenario.

The defensive proponents of America's gun culture stand in stark contrast to what I have seen of Newtown, Connecticut. When, last night, the state troopers and emergency responders walked into the auditorium where the vigil was being held, there was a standing ovation for them, and hugs. Everything points to this Anytown, U.S.A. as being a place that's remarkable not for a display of evil perpetrated there but for the kindness of its citizens, for neighbors' support and caring for each other, for the openhearted joining of people of different faiths and experiences to create a blanket of humanity in this awful time. If it's awful for us—and I've cried over each obituary and tale of heroism, reading the stories of parents who found their children alive and the parents who didn't, listening to people speak about what they saw—imagine how it is for them. At the interfaith ceremony, when pastors of various churches came together and spoke, some of them cried, too, and when Obama spoke, particularly when the names of teachers and children were announced to the room, you could hear faint sobbing in the background from the audience, along with a baby's utterly poignant cry. But no one screamed in rage (though if they did, I wouldn't blame them). No one has behaved in any way but considerate, respectful, and graceful, despite an insurmountable kind of pain.

That behavior and last night's judgment-free interfaith ceremony, held for the sheer purpose of people supporting other people, is so different from those harsh back-and-forth volleys you see elsewhere, often on the Internet, where it's so ease to accuse or censure without thinking that anyone else is even a human. It was a powerful reminder to me that we are all people, and that we can be good ones, even while elsewhere people who were not following that lead were, according to Lt. J. Paul Vance, posting information online in which they claimed to be the shooter. From elsewhere still, we were learning that a gunman had opened fire in a hospital in Alabama, and that another man, this one in Indiana, had stockpiled 47 guns and threatened to use them on an elementary school. News like that can make a person feel a bit hopeless, like we're too far gone—no one will lessen their grip even a little bit on their beloved semiautomatics, effective treatment of the mentally ill is too difficult, the NRA lobby is too powerful, America is too entrenched in this violent culture, we can never see eye-to-eye about this.

But as I watched President Obama speak at the vigil in Newtown, there was another surprise: Suddenly I started to think that maybe this one, the fourth time in which this president has addressed the nation about a mass shooting, and its aftermath, would be different. Maybe there would finally be some change, or some real steps toward that answer we are looking for. Maybe this was indeed the "tipping point," as people were saying. The answer we need the most, of course, is not to the question "Why did this happen?" but to the other question: "How do we keep this from happening again?"

All around us, I think, there are attempts to get back to normal (in between tweets about gun control and heartbreaking children's obituaries, there are tweets about the typical things we think about on Mondays, other important news, and the blessedly frivolous news I wish we could all return to considering wholeheartedly because it would mean none of this had happened). Of course it would be this way, though surely it's not the case for the victims' families and those in Newtown and even President Obama, who spoke in the heartfelt, frank language of one who knows what it is to be a parent last night in his speech. Of course we would start to move on, to process, to, more slowly this time, but still inevitably, put this behind us, because that is what we do with horrible news, and because we are not lawmakers, we are only the people who live under the laws. But, I think, if there's anything we've learned about social media and the internet and public online forums in the last years, it's that they are powerful tools allowing us to express our opinions and have our voices heard, whatever those voices might be. And that those voices, and expressing them, can change things.

Online, over the weekend, people did this. People railed against the gun culture (and proponents of the gun culture) in the U.S., while those who feel defensive at such things argued again and again that it's not the guns, it's the people. This argument is growing wearying, of course, because it fails to recognize the point, and those who say it are being I think deliberately obtuse. None of us believe people should die violent gun deaths, right? So what do we do to stop that? What are the real conversations that we need to be having? And why is it so easy to lose focus over those real conversations, to get pulled into marginal silliness and nastiness? Yet we do want to talk about this, really, greater numbers of us and some of us perhaps for the first time: A petition asking for an immediate address of the issue of gun control through Congressional legislation is the most popular ever posted to the White House's We the People site.

Some people are criticizing Obama for not saying "gun" or "control" last night. Instead of voicing those two words, or ushering up any firm policy statements, he asked, "Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?" And he said, "We are not doing enough, and we will have to change." I felt these statements to be better, both more respectful and more powerful, than invoking the words "gun control" or addressing specific laws during a vigil. Specifics are hard, yes, partly because "gun control" doesn't have a specific meaning in the first place. Sure, guns should be controlled. But how? To what extent? What laws need to be enacted, what laws need to change? (It's hard to know, for the record, what the NRA feels about all of this, because they've been silent. Though that's what they've done before, too. Maybe that says enough.) Still, I doubt that anyone among us, excepting someone who wants to kill, is desirous that such violence should continue. Obama's words are powerful because they invoke a common ground for everyone, as opposed to churning through nitty-gritty specifics to be worked out in Congress. It is far more important at this moment that we align on a general cause, for the good of everyone, than that we break apart into dueling forces defending specific agendas. Look at the people of Newtown as an example. We should be a country now.

We must change. Obviously we have to change. Obviously the status quo is no longer O.K.—it hasn't been for a while. We live in places where people who want to kill people are able to get or access guns to do that. I keep thinking that Adam Lanza shot his mother and 26 people, including 20 terrified first-graders, with a gun or guns that were legal, which his mother had apparently acquired legally, including the .223 calibre Bushmaster was shared extensively online on Friday, a gun also used in the D.C. sniper shootings. It's a gun with the purpose of killing. And, in fairness, every gun is a tool meant to kill, the difference between a gun and a knife being that a gun's primary and pretty much singular purpose is to kill or wound something or someone, or to practice doing that for sport or "just in case." A knife may pare, may whittle, may cut up things, may butter or spread, may be used to make something. Guns are different. So, yes, in light of grave national trouble, enact legislation to control guns in a way that is different, and more stringent, than they are currently being controlled. And while we're at it, while we're placing at least that Band-Aid over a wound, also consider the other things: identification and treatment of the mentally ill; detecting warning signs of illness or possible violence; teaching people what to do when they receive those signs; considering school security measures; analyzing the whats and whys of pervasive violence in our culture. As we did when we faced unprecedented terrorist attacks, let's make the fixes where we can, to prevent loss of further life, and consider what else we can do, and realize that we're in a state in which the old rules no longer hold true. Sometimes rights do need to be limited, like when innocent kids are being shot over and over again; like when we are under siege in a way we hadn't realized or been able to own up to until the unthinkable happened. It's time to dig out that dusty old (metaphorical) social contract and think about it once again.

Before the shooting at Newtown I wanted to write an end-of-year piece on all the silly Internet rage fights we find ourselves in, over and over again. Over things that just don't matter, petty arguments of "You said/you said," purposeful misunderstandings over sometimes important things, deliberately taking things the wrong way to provide reasons to yell and fight with each other. I wanted to talk about not only the trolls, but the trolls who troll the trolls, and talk about how this immediate knee-jerk reaction to get really mad and take it out on someone else online is the stuff of children, and that we should be better in 2013. I no longer want to write that piece because both the idea of it and the behavior that I'm talking about seems so unimportant in light of what happened Friday. Yet some of it, perhaps, applies. The point is, it's all too easy to be selfish and weak and think only of yourself. If this experience that shouldn't have had to be experienced can do something for us, I hope it can make us think differently about guns and our gun culture and our treatment of each other—ill or healthy, children or adults—in society. I hope it can make us better people, somehow. The people of Newtown have said they don't want their town to be defined by this tragedy, but watching the news over the past three days, I think the rest of us should try to define ourselves more like the people of Newtown, who throughout it all have set an inspiring example of grace, kindness, patience, and understanding at a heartbreaking and impossible time, a time that's harder for them than for anyone.

I guess it's hard to just wake up and be better people, but for them, we should try.

Inset above, as released by Emilie Parker's family, via @WestWingReport.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.