Scanning the news last night for updates on the mind-bending horrors unfolding at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, I was transported thirteen years backward, to Denver, where, in the aftermath of the Columbine High School massacre, I took part in a project that involved interviewing survivors of that tragedy.
Though there are basic similarities – both shootings involved disaffected young men who gunned down defenseless children at their desks, before killing themselves - it is striking how the tone of the public’s reaction has changed. In 1999, the shocker was the location of the carnage. A school shooting? In a peaceful suburb? Fast forward to Connecticut in 2012, and the emphasis is elsewhere. “Not again,” a friend said when he heard the news. “Another school shooting? What happened this time?”
In Newtown, the father of a survivor confessed he wasn’t alarmed at first, even after hearing that his child’s school was on lockdown. “They have lockdowns all the time,” he told the local press. According to another report, the school could hardly have been better prepared –“incident drills” are so common that some teachers acted as if on cue, immediately locking their doors and hiding their pupils in closets. Meanwhile, an automated messaging system activated an emergency telephone tree. Afterward, survivors rushed to the place they knew they should gather in “such an event”: the local firehouse.
What kind of perverse world do we live in – not just violence-crazed, but so attuned to the possibility of terror, and so vigilant, that we almost seem to be expecting it? What does it say about our culture when a middle-class housewife keeps a registered assault rifle and two hand guns at home, and her son turns them on her before blowing away two classrooms full of six- and seven-year-olds? And what sort of twisted legacy are we leaving the next generation, when just this week, yet another state (Michigan, this time) moved to abolish “gun-free zones” and to permit the carrying of concealed weapons in schools, churches, hospitals, and sports arenas? Are we supposed to simply accept the fact that, “Well, times have changed”? Are we and our children and grandchildren doomed, from now on, to live in perpetual fear?
Already the Internet is teeming with conflicting voices and viewpoints, from the ardent and sincere to the cynical and fatalistic. I find myself identifying with those who, reluctant to politicize the event, are holding back from the fray and rightly calling for solidarity and sensitivity in the face of excruciating pain. If your child had been murdered, would you care what the “experts” had to say?
Still, we cannot allow the dead to have died in vain—we dare not remain unmoved or untouched. If we truly care about Newtown (or Syria, or the streets of New York and Mumbai and Berlin, or anywhere else that blood is being shed) we must grapple with the question of human evil more earnestly than ever – and, if that grappling is to be redemptive, the riddle of our own personal responsibility in the face of it.
Of course, each of us must find his own way of coming to terms with what is ultimately an unfathomable mystery. The old, conventional answers tend to be trite, and give cold comfort to the grieving. Worse, they border on the presumptuous – “God must have allowed it.”
And yet, as we approach Christmas, a time not just for observing Christ’s birth, but also for remembering the promise of his Second Coming, it only seems right to pray that despite their unimaginable heartache or numbness, or amid their tears, those who lost loved ones in Newtown might find at least some solace in the season. Not in “holiday cheer” – Christmas may be the last thing they can bear contemplating at this point – but in its deepest roots, which have nothing to do with shopping or preparing for festivities, and everything to do with the suffering of a child. His name was Jesus, and he was driven from his home in infancy by a tyrant plotting a massacre of innocents every bit as gruesome as the one that unfolded in Connecticut.
Last night at a neighborhood carol service, someone suggested an old Christmas spiritual that begins, “O, poor little Jesus, this world’s gonna break your heart.” There wasn’t a dry eye by the end of the song, and no one needed to explain. And yet: we shouldn’t forget that Jesus is also called Emmanuel – “God with us” – and that he walked the earth and knew (and still knows) the travails of each soul as if they were his own. Sinless as a child, he still chose a criminal’s death: his arms spread in agony, though also in self-sacrificial love. Who’s to say they’re not still stretched out, waiting to embrace and heal our dying world?