The Newtown massacre was the last major story I covered for The Star-Ledger. I interrupted my vacation to drive there that Friday, chosen because I had experience with death. The Unabomber. Columbine. The World Trade Center. Airplane crashes. The Beltway snipers. Nickel Mines. Haiti. Now this. Young children, barely older than my grandson, slaughtered in a Connecticut classroom along with teachers who tried to save them. The specter of the quick but bloody butchery of horrifyingly frightened little boys and girls generated, not universal revulsion for the easy ownership of guns, but just another voyeuristic and ephemeral media moment.
As I write this I am aware that among us are those who were, maybe still are, angered by the attention paid to the carnage at Sandy Hook. In the year since Newtown, nearly 200 children died from gunshot wounds, many at home, many in the streets in the slow motion genocide that is part of urban life. The death of one child every 18 hours, of course, cannot compete for a place in our limited attention span with the deaths of 20 children in a few seconds. The efficient technology of assault weapons partners with the needs of cable television news.
I was, of course, accustomed, even inured, to the temporary population explosion tragedy brings to a town, whether it be Columbine in Colorado or Newtown in Connecticut or Nickel Mines in Pennsylvania. Sincere and attractive young men and women, holding microphones, trailed by colleagues with video cameras on their shoulders, all on the hunt for someone willing to speak to the lens—“No, don’t look at the camera, look at me”– while the correspondents on the scene nod and grimace in falsely sympathetic response. Less obvious, and usually older, characters like me, members of the dying print media, hovering nearby, reluctant to pull notebooks out of our stretched back pockets until we knew we had a live one. Aware these “sources” would so much rather be pictured on television than quoted by some obscure newspaper they’ve never heard of.
I remember a moment in Columbine in 1999. In the park ringed by media tents and trucks with antenna dishes. This overheard conversation between two teenaged girls:
“Hey, I talked to some tv reporters from Japan.”
“That’s nothing. I was interviewed by Dan Rather.”
I have Sandy Hook moments now, too. I am not sure what they will tell you. About the slaughter. About those who covered it. About me. About your nation and your world. It has been a year since frightened children were shot to death in the sanctuary of their public school classroom.
The first moment came only hours after the shootings. At a pub where I had written my first story earlier that day, I met a waitress who knew Adam Lanza’s mother, also killed that Friday by her son. The waitress agreed to speak with me when her shift ended. So I sat in the pub and waited for her to join me at one of those high bar tables. I was lost in thoughts of what I was going to ask her when I found myself annoyed and distracted by something. The noise. The noise of a busy pub on a Friday night.
Nothing unusual about that, of course. Big screens showed sports events. A dollar-a-song juke box cried out songs that were way after my time. At crowded tables surrounding mine, young men and women laughed and clowned and swore and uttered half-sentences spiced with guttural profanities. Some held iPhones to their ears, shouting and asking those on the other end to repeat what they had just said, smiling at words unheard by those around them, unheard maybe even by them.
Nothing unusual about any of that, yet, hardly a mile away, the limp and rapidly cooling bodies of boys and girls, the adored of their families, had not yet been removed from the school.
A familiar song came on the juke and maybe it was the familiarity that brought me the insight, if insight it was. John Fogerty singing “Rock and Roll Girls”. The line: “A time out of time, for you and no one else.”
I knew at that moment that Newtown would be no different from the long, unending list of slaughters and atrocities that would never stop. Here in places like Sandy Hook and Columbine and at Virginia Tech and in Aurora and Tucson. Here in this country and in Scotland and in Finland and in Norway. It would never end. All this media attention allegedly justified by the need to show people the consequences of atrocities–with no chance whatever of change.
Just a new and different list of the dead children. Lifelong sorrow for their families. But consequences–what consequences? Most state laws passed in the aftermath of Sandy Hook eased restrictions on gun ownership.
“A time out of time, for you and no one else.”
This is the first in a series of articles on the Newtown massacre.