Newtown: A Midnight Letter

(AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

A young boy places a candle with others at the base of a flagpole outside Newtown High School before an interfaith vigil with President Barack Obama, Sunday, December 16, 2012, in Newtown, Connecticut. A gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children.

It’s almost midnight and my seven-year-old is finally asleep. Tonight, she and I had the usual arguments about her taking a bath, about when she would go to bed; as it happens I’ve been a single dad the last several days, so we’ve argued more than usual. Two days ago was her Christmas play at school, at eight in the morning when her second-grade class sang, “All I Want for Christmas Is a Hippopotamus,” and it wasn’t until I was back in the car afterward that I heard on the radio about Sandy Hook. By the time I got to lunch there was nothing else on the news. It would be an overstatement to suggest that all of the restaurant had come to a stop, but certainly it arrested the attention of many, some of the waiters stopping to watch the TV over the bar when the president came on. From where I sat, I could see the TV but not hear it; I saw the president brush something from one eye as though there was something in it, and only when I saw him brush the other eye did I know for sure that this wasn’t something I had seen him do before.

Today, when he spoke again from the memorial service in Newtown—interrupting a football game and thus, as reports have it, enraging some sports fans—he was more composed. His emotions threatened to overwhelm him only near the end, when he recited the names of the 20 murdered children who were, more or less, my daughter’s age. He had just met with their families in a meeting that we have to imagine exhausted whatever vocabulary of grief can possibly be sufficient for such a moment. Anyone who has a seven-year-old knows that the brave declarations made tonight, by the president and the state’s governor and the various clergy, to endure what happened last Friday and to somehow prevail, are a lie. I don’t say this bitterly. I don’t suggest that anything different should have been declared. I just mean what any parent knows, that this isn’t something any parent survives in any state that isn’t irrevocably broken. This isn’t something any parent could ever get over. This is no wound that time or anything else heals. The best you could do is recreate some fractured version of what your life had been before and hold it together with the adhesive of some new commitment to redemption. But that crack in your life isn’t going to ever go away; the only life that could be more cracked than that of a parent of one of these murdered kids is the life of the parent of the murderer—the one of the two parents that the murderer didn’t murder before he headed off for that school, the one who is left with not only loss but something so much bigger than mere shame or guilt that the vocabulary for that is exhausted too.

The president said tonight what any reasonable person is thinking even once we’ve conceded, if only for the sake of argument, the points made by those who love their guns so much. We can concede that curtailing the power of the state to disarm the citizenry is important and that is why the second amendment to the Constitution exists. We can concede that the deranged will find ways to express their derangement whether they have guns or not. We can concede that the suppression of guns will only create a black market for them. We can concede that a ban on certain kinds of weapons may or may not have prevented this particular massacre. We can concede a violence in the American DNA that would not manifest itself in, say, a heavily armed Canada. We can concede all that and still be left with this question, which is: At what point do we finally make a national statement on behalf of our own civility? At what point do we take responsibility for our national character, by doing something that’s right regardless of whether it’s a panacea, simply because it is right, simply because otherwise we have blood on our hands too? I may be wrong but I sensed, as I think a number of people sense, that something snapped in Barack Obama this time. I sense that something snapped in all of us, or most of us anyway—maybe enough of us. I hear the sound of the snap in myself, as I write this on the edge of the bed where my kid sleeps; maybe tonight a hundred million midnight letters are being written, if only to ourselves. This was finally the tragedy too far, these were the 20 small lives too many, not to mention the six longer lives that tried to protect the shorter ones. 

 

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