My first indication was from my friend Rob LaRiviere, via Facebook. He mentioned Newton, not Newtown, which caught my eye since I had lived next to Newton, Massachusetts when I was going to MIT. Rob's post mentioned shootings and children. That was as much as I needed to know. I chose to avoid finding out the details; the outline of the story was enough. More than wanting to forget the details, it would be easier if I simply never knew them in the first place.
But, try as I might, I've had to let at least some of the story seep in. Even just the outlines are bad enough: kid shoots his mother, goes to school, wipes out her class, kills several teachers/school staff along the way, kills himself. My one public reaction was a tweet: "Who kills children? Who does that?"
I don't have any connection to the victims and families in Newtown, don't know anyone who lives there, don't have kids in Kindergarten or first grade. So I'm not confronted with this tragedy except through my own actions to follow the story.
And while I'm not materially connected to the story, I can certainly relate. My kids are grown now, but I still remember the realization that I loved them like crazy and I couldn't imagine how I would go on if anything ever happened to them. And my kids have each had their share of scary moments in school, nothing so serious as a gunman in the classroom, but enough to make you realize that safety is an ephemeral thing. What's more, there are many teachers in my extended family; what if something like this happened to them?
But after a period of trying to look the other way, I've decided that I have to open the conversation. Because that's what 's called for. Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, Deepwater Horizon… a tragic event occurs, we as a society step back, assess what happened, and figure out how to improve things so that the event is less likely to happen or at least less likely to have as grave a consequence.
Except when it comes to guns, kids and schools. You can tick off the tragedies as well as I: Virginia Tech, Columbine, Aurora, and now Sandy Hook. And those are just the most recent events; you may recall that the song "I Don't Like Mondays" was written about the person that shot up a school near San Diego (read more here).
In the time since we learned of this mass murder, there have been reactions aplenty.
- Sympathy for those who died.
- Cries of "how could this happen?"
- Calls for increased gun control
- Calls for greater mental illness funding
- Suggestions that the media are to blame
- Suggestions that violent video games are part of the problem
Probably my favorite response, from @TimthePM, was to promise to unfriend/unfollow/unlink with anyone who started calling for more gun control, or less gun control, or any other "solution" in the immediate aftermath of the shootings.
Why? First, we need to grieve. Those (like me) who are bystanders with no emotional investment in these events, other than as members of some larger community, would love to move to the "solve it!" part of the discussion. I want to put this thing behind me—I've got Christmas to think about. But for those that are in the middle of this emotional superstorm, we have to give them their time.
Second, we need to get the facts. I have tried to avoid knowing anything about this massacre except the broad outlines: young man gets one or more guns, goes to school, starts shooting. Why? What led up to this? Was there some event that set him off? What kind of gun or guns did he use? Did he have mental health issues? I don't know the answers to these questions; maybe they've all been reported already.
But I remember in the days after Columbine, how there was an accepted notion that the killers were responding to being bullied. And then, not too long ago, I read an article in Time or Newsweek by the mother of one of the shooters. She described the mental issues her son had faced. It made me go back and ask, how much of the conversation after Columbine was about mental health? And yet, this story says that much of what we thought we knew about the killers' motivations has turned out to be wrong.
I guess that's my main point. When something is painful, you do everything you can to make the pain go away. And when it comes to the awful reality of the killings at Sandy Hook, we want to proclaim a solution to a problem we've implied and then move on.
But these aren't simple problems, and they aren't fixed by one-dimensional solutions. I don't know what the answer is, but I know that it's a combination of things. So let's talk about it. Let's start with common ground—we don't want our kids at risk of being killed while in school—and go from there. Let's acknowledge the hurt, support one another, have our say. And then let's get something done.