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They huddled terrified against each other, the way Annamaria clutches my legs when a stranger gets too close. Out of all of Sandy Hook's nightmare images that's the one that stays with me, the one that haunts my days and chills my dreaming nights. They held their friends and closed their eyes and hoped the bad man would go away. But he didn't.
Eleven years ago I was in New York during the 9/11 attacks. Seven years ago I tried to make sense of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. This one is harder. Atrocities committed for some religious or political cause, bad weather, bureaucratic incompetence: horrible as they are, they are a recognized if not loved part of our lives. This feels more like a great gaping wound in the order of things, a Rorschach blot whose every explanation only leads us further astray.
The usual suspects have weighed in with their favorite solution: we need more (Christian) God in our schools. They forget or conveniently ignore the October 2006 shootings at the West Nickel Mines Amish School and the April 2012 massacre at Oikos University. School prayer didn't stop Andrew Kehoe from killing 38 students at a Bath, Michigan elementary school in 1927: neither did it discourage Walter Seifert from slaughtering 8 students at a Cologne, Germany Catholic school in 1964.
Some have focused not on the shooter but on his weapons. Calls have gone out to ban high-capacity magazines and assault weapons and to implement stricter background checks. Others recommend fighting firepower with firepower and arming school staff, alongside measures like bulletproof glass and retractable security doors. It's unclear how these new protective steps are to be funded or how Nancy Lanza, a well-liked pillar of her community, might have failed even the most rigorous background check. It is clear that a 1994-2004 ban on assault weapons had little effect on crime, thanks largely to loopholes which rendered it toothless.
Others have suggested we need to do something about those damn crazy people. Senator Joseph Lieberman asked "Is there enough mental health help available for [troubled] kids?" while Forbes columnist Larry Bell suggested we "seriously rethink the policies that led to emptying our mental treatment facilities a half-century ago and leaving millions of severely disordered people untreated." While Adam Lanza's medical history is still unclear there's no doubt that he, like every other child in his wealthy suburban community, had ready access to mental health care -- certainly as good as anything which would be offered by any government program.
In the end, much of this discussion is just whistling past the graveyard. We offer "answers" so we can pretend there are solutions. Sandy Hook terrifies us like SIDS, like childhood cancer, like all the terrible things that can happen when we least expect them. It reminds us our greatest treasure can be taken from us despite all our efforts. If you think toddlers are scared of monsters you should talk to their parents.
And yet despite all that fear we keep going. We hold our children close, then send them out into the world with all its glories and its terrors. We wait for the future with anticipation and dread, wondering what dreams and nightmares will come true. If the worst happens we will mourn. But amidst our pain we will remember the joy and we will count ourselves blessed for the time we had. We will say, as Robbie Parker said of his murdered daughter Emilie, "This world is a better place because she has been in it."
Through this long cold winter may we find peace in the darkness, and may we we always remember the light.
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