Indeed it does. And when it happens to strangers that’s all it is. Stuff. The papers are full of it everyday. In the words of Marcel Proust, “that abominable and sensual act called reading the newspaper, thanks to which all the misfortunes and cataclysms in the universe over the last twenty-four hours, the battles which cost the lives of fifty thousand men, the murders, the strikes, the bankruptcies, the fires, the poisonings, the suicides, the divorces, the cruel emotions of statesmen and actors, are transformed for us, who don’t even care, into a morning treat, blending in wonderfully, in a particularly exciting and tonic way, with the recommended ingestion of a few sips of café au lait.”
Because of the three-hour time difference between Connecticut and Washington State where we then lived, the morning Sandy Hook happened, I was precisely reading the paper and having coffee when my daughter called. It was still dark out but the lamp over the table cast a golden glow all around the kitchen. I don’t remember anything of what I read. It was probably just stuff. Happening to strangers. Murders, fights, plane crashes, earthquakes, volcano eruptions, hurricanes. Who knows? Regular stuff. Sad but part of life. For other people. Not me.
My daughter was so distraught that I had trouble understanding what she was saying. Finally I got it that there was an active shooter at the elementary school where her three younger kids, my grandkids, were in attendance and that she was rushing back from work to get there. Shock set in.
She said she would call back as soon as she could. I rushed to wake up my husband and went to the computer for live updates. I found still pictures of the school with police cars parked outside. Later I saw a video of kids being evacuated. I thought I saw the twins. I worried about Sophia. The news from my daughter were more and more anguished. The girls had come out but not Noah. It took a long time before they knew for sure. The most horrible hours of their lives. And ours.
I know we can’t be distraught about everything that happens in the world. There has to be a buffer between us and the tragedies the papers are full of and the truth is there are some things we can do nothing about.
But there are some things each of us can do.
- We can elect people who get it. People with common sense and a conscience. We can establish a list of priorities and make sure we vote for people who share them. In terms of the availability of high-velocity arms, I find it hard to believe that the founding fathers were for unregulated access to 21st-century weapons of war. Adam Gopnik makes the case that the Second Amendment is in fact a gun-control amendment. Read the article to the end. The last sentence is a call to action.
- But it might not be enough. According to How they got their guns, an article in today’s New York Times, “criminal histories and documented mental health problems did not prevent at least eight of the gunmen in 14 recent mass shootings from obtaining their weapons, after federal background checks led to approval of the purchases of the guns used.”
- Another thing we can do then is act preventively by working towards putting in place a reporting system so that each and everyone of us knows whom to call if we hear or read threatening statements or comments. It might not always be enough and it would need to be thoughtfully put together to filter out pranks and baseless denunciations. But it would be a start.
- And in many cases you don’t need a sophisticated system to report your concerns: if you hear something or read something, say something. In my State, just a couple of days ago, four high school students were arrested suspected of plotting killings. “The plot was foiled on Wednesday when a group of students alerted a teacher after they overheard three of the four discussing a plan to open fire on the school.” The teacher notified the police who sprang into action. We will never know the names of those who have been saved but they now have a chance to grow up. That is the one and only goal.
And as the grandmother of a shooting victim, a start is all I am asking for. The start of a conversation. In each and every neighborhood, each and every county, each and every State and at the national level. Yes, stuff happens. People lose it. But if you lose it and go on a rampage and all you have at your disposal is a bicycle chain, a baseball bat or a knife or even a .22 rifle you cannot kill dozens of people in a couple of minutes.
Some countries have taken drastic measures after carnages such as the ones in Aurora, in Sandy Hook, in Charleston or two days ago at Umpqua College (and many other places I can’t possibly list here.) It is hard to believe that our country, the United States, the land of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, finds itself paralyzed and unable to devise ways to better protect its citizens.
I believe that most people are good. I also believe that some are terribly misguided and some are hopeless sociopaths. We can’t protect our kids and ourselves against everyone and everything. But if we get together in good faith, linked across the political spectrum by the strong desire to do better than we have done so far, we may make our country a safer place to live.
Stuff happens. Until it happens to someone you love, it remains stuff. Next year we’ll be electing our new president. Republican or Democrat, he or she will the president of all of us. I’d like to think that stuff will sometimes keep our president awake at night, tossing and turning and thinking hard about better ways to save us from ourselves.