Katy Burns: In Sandy Hook, Lost innocents
I’ve written a column for the Monitor since 1999, and one of the easier and more enjoyable ones to write each year is about Christmas, about the so-called holiday season.
After all, what’s not to like? This is a time of remembering, of renewing friendships and coming together to celebrate our blessings, our connectedness, our common humanity. Easy stuff to write about.
Except for this year. I can’t get the slaughter at Sandy Hook Elementary School out of my head. The valiant teachers and protectors trying to save small children from terror and death – and not always succeeding in saving either the children or themselves. What fright those innocents must have felt. The unimaginable horror of the carnage that would-be rescuers found.
More than anything, it was the thought of what must have happened to those vulnerable little bodies when they were struck with up to 11 bullets each – bullets designed to do maximum damage to human flesh on the battlefields for which they were intended.
I have never seen even one body torn by a bullet. My husband, a combat vet and former tank commander, has. And several hours after the terrible news came from Connecticut, he retired to the basement to ride a bit on a stationary bike. Not long after, I heard the noise of a vacuum cleaner. And then another noise.
I went to the stairs. And my dear love was vacuuming cobwebs and cat hair while the noise of the machine muffled – but not very well – the sound of his sobs.
Who could not cry?
Most unforgettable, perhaps, was the photo that has become the iconic image of that terrible day. It was the picture, repeated everywhere, over and over, of a line of young children, hands linked and shepherded by adults, fleeing the grisly scene. Some were openly weeping. Others looked shell-shocked.
It was like the terrible reverse of a sight that’s familiar to anyone who ventures near a school these days. Who has not seen it, a line of small children, holding hands or, sometimes, holding a rope, and walking happily but obediently with their attentive teachers, eager to see where the adventure was taking them? And who hasn’t smiled at the sight? I don’t know if I’ll ever see that little tableau again without thinking of Sandy Hook. And I know I’m not alone.
We have been assaulted in recent years by what seem to be ever-increasing numbers of mass shootings – Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson, Aurora. The list seems endless. And each time it is “too soon” to talk about taking measures to stop such massacres – until it’s too late.
Sandy Hook in Newtown may be different. Or so a huge number of Americans, including our president, seem to hope. Maybe, finally, Americans are getting angry. God knows I am.
The majority of the victims were such young children, barely more than toddlers. And treasured, privileged children. They lived in Sandy Hook in Newtown because their parents wanted and could afford
the best schools, the safest neighborhoods. Their futures were boundless. Until they had no futures.
In this happiest and – for many – holiest season, those grieving parents were left to contemplate children’s Christmas presents and Hanukkah gifts, cruel reminders of what they – and we – lost.
The rest of what we think of as the civilized world looks at this country and what we do to each other with a mixture of horror and pity.
Let’s remember, the deaths in Newtown don’t stand in isolation. About 10,000 Americans die in gun homicides each year, a number many times in excess of those so slain in any other nation in the world. Most are unheralded, except by those directly affected. Many are likely not as treasured and privileged as the children of Sandy Hook. But that doesn’t make their lives less precious to those who loved them.
After each one of these gruesome mass-shooting horror shows, the debates begin anew. Any real discussion of the issue quickly bogs down into endless debates about definitions of what constitutes an assault weapon or a semiautomatic weapon, of kinds of bullets and their impact on armor and on human flesh, of high capacity magazines and their utility or lack thereof. And nothing happens.
We hear interminable debates about mental illness, especially untreated mental illness, as if all would be well if we could only identify the few crazy people are who causing this devastation.
We collectively traipse off into a denunciation of our violence-drenched culture, much of it gun-enabled. Popular music and videos, mass market movies hawked by some of the most liberal forces in Hollywood, critically acclaimed TV shows and increasingly graphic video games make gun-inspired violence attractive. We celebrate it, and then cringe in horror when it moves from screens to real life. And yes, there should be massive soul-searching by both the purveyors and the consumers of such stuff.
Violence – explosive, lethal violence – as popular entertainment must somehow be made disreputable, uncool. No doubt about it.
But when what is called the most popular and sought-after gun in the country is one that will, with the right ammunition, kill scores of people in a few minutes – and when it is used in mass shooting after mass shooting – we have a terrible problem.
One that until now no one has been willing to try to solve, even as the bodies stack up across the nation.
Until craven politicians – including our own Kelly Ayotte, herself the mother of two young children close in age to the 20 whose bodies were shredded by bullets in Sandy Hook – stop trying to pretend that the sacred Second Amendment covers every lethal weapon craved by every thrill-seeking or paranoid American, we will continue to confront spasms of unimaginable bloodshed, following by anguished hand-wringing and then . . . silence. Nothing will change.
The ordinary citizens who are justifiably outraged now will have to keep up the pressure, not just for a week or two but for as long as it takes. When the NRA and other shills for the gun industry reassert their voices and their money, those who are finally fed up have to outshout them, to keep up the pressure to assert legal control over lethal weapons.
And when we hear more and more about mental illness as the sole cause of these tragedies, don’t be taken in. The real issue is the easy access of mentally disturbed people to what can only be called weapons of mass destruction.
About the time the Sandy Hook killer was plotting his baffling and evil assault that ended in the slaughter of 26 in an elementary school, another disturbed man in China went amok, allegedly unhinged by fears of a pending doomsday.
Armed with a kitchen knife, he stabbed an old lady, then ran through a nearby elementary school. Before being subdued by teachers, he had attacked some 22 children.
It was a hideous assault but – unlike in Sandy Hook – no one died, and only two were seriously wounded.
And what is it that gun apologists like to say? Oh, yes: “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Well, how about a new, more positive mantra?
“Guns: a much more efficient way for people to kill people!”
Merry Christmas, everyone. Happy holidays.
(Monitor columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)