First we must grieve; then we can mend
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At some point, we had to look away. The grief in the parents' faces was too naked. Their bodies doubling over at the unspeakable blow was too private for us mere strangers to witness.
We didn't really need visual cues to know how to feel. Hearing the plain, horrible fact that someone had walked into a Connecticut elementary school and murdered child after child, 20 dead by day's end, was more than enough for the chest to throb and the eyes to well. It was far too much.
Six adults died too, five of them at the school, reportedly putting themselves between the gunman and the innocents. But that's what good adults, or even average, conflicted, fearful adults do: They become great when a terrible moment calls them to greatness.
We wept to hear of their heroism. We wept to see the parents standing in the parking lot and lining the side roads waiting for children who would never walk out of that school.
And we looked away to avoid becoming consumers of the pornography of grief.
Tragedy brings out the noblest in some and the worst in others. Those whose job it is to convey news of a tragedy too often offend our sense of decency.
After a deeply troubled milk truck driver killed five Amish girls in their schoolhouse in 2006, a female reporter tried to sneak into one of the home funerals dressed as an Amish woman and a camera crew asked to use a neighbor's roof to film the private religious service.
It would be a relief not to see such tear-mongering again, but the breathless coverage of President Barack Obama's emotional statement Friday was not a good sign. The coverage was sophomoric.
The president spoke eloquently for the nation; his media acolytes did not.
Tasteless excesses aside, the media can't be faulted for wall-to-wall coverage when their audience is an entire nation; the responsibility to watch or not watch, to listen or not listen, is ours.
If a picture's worth a thousand words, sometimes a thousand words are easier to bear than one more picture.
We can look away from the tragic scene, but the torrent of words has just begun, in homes and workplaces everywhere, because we all hope with everything we have within us that another such atrocity never occurs.
Whether it is unseemly to debate public policy within mere hours of such an event (and I feel it is), it's certainly not very helpful. That's because so early on, our talk is long on emotion and short on facts.
Advocates of stricter gun control laws immediately seized the opportunity to decry the ease with which anyone supposedly can get guns. But James Brady's anti-gun violence foundation rates Connecticut's restrictions as fifth toughest in the nation.
And Adam Lanza used weapons legally owned by his own mother, who reportedly trained him in their appropriate handling. He used them after trying to buy some of his own last week but balking at the waiting period and background check. These facts took a couple of days to emerge.
Now the discussion can more helpfully focus on the responsible safekeeping of weapons, on whether children with neurological disorders should ever be exposed to them, on how experts can more accurately assess the propensity for violence among the emotionally unstable.
The religiously inclined made a quick, illogical connection between incidents of violence in, and "the banishment of God" from, the nation's schools. Although administrators' squelching of manifestations of faith -- especially if it's Christian -- may regularly cross over into infringement of the individual's First Amendment rights and just as often into anti-intellectualism, the fact is that violence in schools has been declining since an early 1990s surge.
Statistical declines are no comfort to victims and survivors, however -- none at all.
Whether God is officially in or out of the public schools, his aid and comfort have been invoked countless times since Friday, from the Sandy Hook Elementary School parking lot to community prayer services to the White House. Mr. Obama asked that God would, "in the words of Scripture, heal the brokenhearted and bind up their wounds."
Decisions made in the grip of strong emotions are rarely good ones. We have to grieve first -- not wallow, but grieve -- and then soberly we will address the eternal question of how to fix, manage or contain what is so startlingly broken in the human condition.
First Published December 17, 2012 12:00 am