We are all Sandy Hook: The tragedy after the tragedy
Originally published in the Spring 2013 editor of The Burr, Kent State University's student-produced magazine. [Online link no longer available]
“We are all Sandy Hook: The real tragedy, viewed from a few weeks in Washington D.C. following the most devastating shooting in American history”
A rare dusting of snow blankets the National Mall as we arrive at the Washington Monument. A wintry haze veils the late-morning sun as we approach a crowd of thousands. Somewhere in there is Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education, explaining how he is here today as a dad, not a politician.
“This is Starkeisha Reed, who at 7:30 in the morning was in her living room getting ready for school and shot by an AK-47. This is Claire Holden, who was on the bus going home from school.” He’s choking up. When he was CEO of Chicago Public Schools, he says, they buried children like Reed and Holden every two weeks due to gun violence.
I crane my neck and study the faces around me. The rally — billed as purely a product of grassroots activism, that great national march on Washington, this one advocating stricter regulation of our nation’s firearms and assault rifles — yields a fairly accurate cross-section of America’s melting pot. Some wave factory-sealed posters spinning clean AR-15 as monstrous villains. “STOP the NRA!” the signs plead. Others carry the name of someone they knew.
There’s a certain venom, an electricity in the air, an urgency of a moment in which you feel political momentum is going to turn, that the fledglings of history are with you.
My roommate Joe and I try to get closer to the stage, but the crowd is too dense. We settle next to a few older women with wild tufts of red hair — possibly grandmothers. They’re not waving and thrusting their signs but instead holding them resignedly at their sides: “We Are Sandy Hook.”
I heard the Dec. 14 news through the static of an airport taxi cab radio. I had descended from a clear sky upon the cliffs of sunny San Diego, visiting a friend for a few days. It was only the second time in my life my jaw involuntarily dropped. Every ounce of my being felt suspended in an ether of disbelief. I shook my head. “God. Damn.” The cab driver and I shared a silent ride.
I texted my mom, an elementary school teacher back home. I talked to a few of my friends. My Facebook blew up with posted anger and typed sorrow, but no one had much to say that really meant anything. In my motel room by the bay, I spent the afternoon inside, blinds drawn, two feet away from the television as the president cried at the podium. As the police gave updates. As the news recycled through the same helicopter aerials of the school. The posture in which we Americans have becomes versed, tragedy after tragedy, shooting after shooting.
I turned off the TV after awhile, numb and introspective. I walked by the water until night came. It was now overcast, chilly and misting. I was 2,800 miles and three times zones away from Newtown, Conn., but the distance didn’t seem to matter.
Human tragedy forges a connection that connect be elevated into poetry or stamped into prose. Rather it’s the moment of reaction — those hours, days, weeks, months that follow — in which we vicariously contrive some kind of meaning. That night by the water, I suppose I was chasing that meaning. I was cruelly asking myself questions for which there are no answers.
For me, as the nation collectively took a few silent days of grief , I tried to enjoy the rest of my California trip. During the lazy holidays with my family, I tried to avoid news coverage of the child funerals. I tried to ignore the flags frown at half-staff, while the true flag of death, invisible and timeless, cracked in the wind.
In January, I moved to Washington D.C.
Out of the Cave
“This time — this time will not be like the time that have dome before,” Joe Biden booms through my kitchen. “We will take this fight through the halls of Congress. We’re going to take this to the American people.”
“They better be careful,” Joe Scarborough warns me as I shudder in my morning bath towel, fumbling with breakfast. “Republicans better be careful and think twice before they make their next move.”
I slide my Washington Post from its yellow plastic sleeve. “Obama’s gun proposals are a matter of life and death,” a headline reads. I sip some coffee. Really? Life and death. Huh. Sip.
From the couch of my apartment in Silver Spring, Md., seven miles away from Capitol Hill, I can’t turn the TV off. Public opinion polls appear vividly on the evening news. The talking heads are more feverish than I’ve ever seen, swinging their arguments like a hammer, nodding aggressively in affirmation, interrupting purposefully in dissent.
“Finally, Democrats are getting out of Plato’s cave when it comes to guns and are not fearful of their own shadow,” explains political strategist Chris Lehane in the Washington Post article. “Now you have Democrats who recognize — ” Slam. I’m out the door and beginning my morning Metro ride with the rest of suburban Washington D.C.
During my first days in the nation’s capital, I take some long walks along the mineral-blue Reflecting Pool. I gaze at the Washington Monument, trying to glean some wisdom from its original construction. I peer through the iron gates of the White House, mildly conspiratorial thoughts coming to me as I squinted at the West Wing and the Rose Garden, wondering who inside was cooking up what scheme for which area of the world. On the marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial, I crane my neck to study the 16th president’s resolute countenance and his rigid backbone. What did he have then that we don’t today? What did he know that we have lost? I saunter by the east portico of the U.S. Capitol Building, then around the West Front where thousands of empty chairs await a new presidential term.
Rhetoric. Washington’s steeped in it. It chokes the daily commute like Beijing smog. It fills the shallow news holes of countless media outlets stationed here. It commands the front page and the lead story. It encircles concepts of liberty and the pursuit of happiness and turns life into an abstraction. There’s no conscious “agenda setting” as you may have learned in communications class, but rather a default setting. A base load of exhaustive missives. Rhetoric. does it work? Does it bring change?
“I’m going to put everything I’ve got into this,” Obama promises on Jan 16, while issuing 23 executive orders on gun control — flanked by children who had written to him. A few days later, firearm market analysts report “unprecedented” sales of military-style assault weapons.
To counter the rise in sales, there were 2,783,765 background checks nationwide in December, up 38 percent for the month before. Suspicion plagued movie theaters, subways, high schools, courthouses and public arenas.
I’m in Washington a mere 10 days before an organized “March on Washington for Gun Control” creeps into my Facebook feed, liked, shared and posted. I RSVP for me and Joe, who is a Capitol Hill intern for Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown.
After work, Joe will loudly imitate constituents who call to complain about their perceived inaction from the senator on myriad issues. “They’ll say: ‘Are you listening to me?’” Joe quips, to the amusement of our shared apartment. “Obama’s gonna take away my guns, isn’t he? You tell Sherrod Brown that I — ’ And I’m like, ‘Sir, may I please take your name down? Sir? What town do you live in? Sir, please?’”
A week before the rally, I’m standing on a patch of mulch on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol, watching the same man I had watched from California pause to wipe away tears. He’s got his right hand raised, his left on Abraham Lincoln’s bible.
“I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear … ”
Obama’s a speck from my perspective. But the audio systems are crisp and his voice reaches me on the rebound of an echo. The sea of lawmakers around him are divided cleanly down the middle both literally and ideologically.
“ … perserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
“So help you God?”
“So help me God.”
“Congratulations Mr. President … ”
Then comes the classic idealism that has defined the first black presidency: a call for action through unity and equality, a shared effort. A call for everyone to do their part to make the world just a little bit safer.
“We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate. We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect.”
Although clearly rhetoric, that sticks with me. Two days later, I come back from a frigid late-night run and discover Wayne LaPierre, vice president of the National Rifle Association, under hot, bright lights in Reno, Nev., responding to the president’s remarks.
“Mr. President, you might think calling us absolutists is a clever way of name-calling without using names. But if that is absolutist, then we are as absolutist as our Founding Fathers and the framers of our United States Constitution. And we are proud of it.”
So that’s what it’s going to come down to, I realize. Those Those are the sides in a battle that desperately needs compromise — in a city that has repeatedly failed to understand progress.
The night before the gun control rally I’m feeling a little homesick, gripping an overhead var on the Metro. It roars past all thirteen stops from my office at the Student Press Law Center in Rosslyn, Va., to my semester-long home in Maryland. Orange line to New Carrollton, a transfer at Metro Center, red line to Glenmont. Earbuds in and eyes vacant — the standard look. The default setting. The train emerges from a tunnel and blues by graffitied, gray structures that filter into high-rise corporate apartments and disintegrate back into liquor stores and Chick-fil-a’s.
“Takoma. Door open on the right.”
How quickly the neighborhoods change here. How quickly the land changes when you cruise at 10,000 feet. I’m beginning to find something similar in the large issues that I once thought were headquartered only in this city.
As an example, take something as ambiguously “inside-the-beltway” as LaPierre’s absolutism argument. As much as it struck a chord with Washington politicians, I remember leaning against the Portage County Courthouse on a warm September day as a young man named William Koberna smoked a cigarette and spoke softly about wanting to be the first in his family to earn a college degree. That ambition was crushed after the Kent State sophomore had a bad run-in with his financial aid office and posted angry, threatening messages toward the Kent State campus. This all happened less than a week after the shootings in a movie theater in North Aurora, Colo.
He mumbled how his arrest in July was totally blown out of proportion after being picked up by national news outlets like the Associated Press and LA Times. Without any prompting from me, he said he regretted it.
“I really didn’t mean it,” he told me. “I loved it here. I just did one stupid thing and flushed it all down the drain.”
We talked about his favorite parts of Kent, his classes, his friends and even the downtown development projects that he will miss, to some extent. He finished the smoke and went inside to chat with his father and lawyer, who eventually advised him to leave and that his court hearing had been rescheduled.
If what the gun control debate really comes down to is compromise, imperfect change toward the better, how do we gauge which imperfections are acceptable? Which liberties do we give up to make life in this country a little less imperfect? And should people like William Koberna be scarified for the greater good? For once, I don’t think this battle is political posturing. I really think everyone’s afraid. The facade of Washington is actually just a facade, this time. The politics sideshow in the House and Senate is merely an escape. The ghosts of Newtown are here, haunting Constitution Avenue.
Why we're here today
Colin Goddard, a survivor of the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007 — who still aeries three of Seung-Hui Cho’s bullets inside of him — begins speaking. His gruff voice is shaking.
“You know, I’m not doing this — I’m not here today because of what happened to me. I’m here today because I kept seeing what happened to me happen to so many other people — and nothing being done about it.”
He talks for two minutes about the need for everyone to call their congressman or -woman. He embodies a panicked, almost-naive brand of hope, often found in a victim-turned-activist. He lists textbook-metaphorical rah-rah’s like “today is the starting blocks,” while knowing or perhaps not knowing most of the crowd will leave their social pledges made today unfulfilled.
“We need to challenge any politician,” Goddard is saying to the loudest ovation yet, “who thinks it’s easier to ask an elementary school teacher to stand up to a gunman with an AR-15 then it is to ask them to stand up to a gun lobbyist with a checkbook!” The crowd’s energy swells, feeding the fiery crescendo of his speech — “We are America. We are Americans. We have overcome tragedies. We have overcome difficulties — once we realize we are better than this, that we can do better than this. That we don’t have to accept these [tragedies] are normal. We believe that. That’s why we’re here today.”
On the basement level of the Newseum — home of iconic journalism memorabilia through the ages — there’s an exhibit of Pulitzer Prize-winning photos that displays captured moments of the most cruel human tragedy and suffering, such that the museum provides boxes of tissues throughout. The Vietnam War’s Napalm Girl in ’72. A Bangkok student publicly lynched in ’76. An Iranian execution by firing squad in ’79. A machete entering the head of a suspected Zulu spy in South Africa in ’91.
Mary Ann Vecchio’s infamous wail of despair in 1970 — her body collapsing in Kent State’s Prentice Hall parking lot over the discovery of the lifeless, face-down body of Jeffrey Miller.
They’re all there.
Whether the Connecticut tragedy amounts to a patchwork piece of paper signed into law or some kind of less formal change adopted among our communities, it’s going to speak volumes about how human we really are. After the Twin Towers turned to rubble, the country came together to fight a common enemy outside our borders and support an ostensibly obvious course of action — an invasion — that turned out to be, well, imperfect.
Sept. 11, 2011 was the first time my jaw dropped and I shook my head. Even as a 9-year-old with a worldview delimited by innocence, I felt suspended in disbelief. Sandy Hook was the second time this happened. In the Newsroom gallery, as safely removed as I was for 9/11 and Sandy Hook, peering at images of tragedy like a scientist through a lens, it happens again.
I see the vulture waiting for a starving African child to die. I’m with the young couple in the surf as they realize their infant has been swept away by the tide. I can almost touch the firefighter cradling a bloodied child from the chaos in Oklahoma City in ’95.
Human tragedy forges a connection that cannot be elevated into poetry or stamped into prose. Rather, it’s in the moments of grief and in the fear that it will happen again.
As I pass the photographs, it all finally becomes too much and I shake my head — “God. Damn.” It’s not that I haven’t contemplated war and famine and massacre before; I’ve always known these things existed. My person fear lies in the answers to the questions that dogged me in California. That which justified a tang of pity for William Koberna; that wet my eyes at the Newseum; that quite honestly maddened me with all I have experienced in Washington.
Newtown is our tragedy. We own it. Our jaws dropped together, we cried together, we lowered our flags together. But my greatest fear of all is that I will sit here in my apartment, ride the train every day to work, see the sad headlines, hear the angry pundits, and no one — not the government, the lobbyists or the American people — is going to do anything about it.