In the dark days after Sept. 11, 2001, as we struggled here to grasp the violence the nation had just witnessed, Queen Elizabeth II sent a message that was read during a memorial service at St. Thomas Church in Manhattan. Like many of the condolences that flowed in from around the world, the queen acknowledged the horror of the act and the difficult days ahead for the families and friends of the dead and wounded. “But nothing that can be said can begin to take away the anguish and the pain of these moments,” she said. “Grief is the price we pay for love.”
On Friday, we were reminded yet again of the depravity of violence, unprovoked and incomprehensible, and the price that love pays. In a few brief minutes 28 lives came to an abrupt end. Twenty 6- and 7-year-olds, six adults and an assailant were gone in the flash of firearms inside a Connecticut elementary school. In her house, a mother lay dead, a victim of her son like the others.
The shock and grief have radiated from Newtown, Conn., across the nation. Nothing exposes depravity more than going after those who are utterly defenseless — at school or at worship, in a movie theater or in a mall. Nothing hurts, or angers, quite like violence that targets children, while their innocence is yet unsullied and their trust in the goodness of life still intact.
We mourn the children who are gone. And whether we have some of our own or not, we understand the promise destroyed, the future that will not be, as if it were our own. We grieve because we all were children once, and our very being spelled hope to those who loved us then — just as the families and friends of the children of Sandy Hook Elementary love them now. We mourn that they are paying with such grief for love and hope.
Speaking to the nation on Friday, President Obama said he was reacting not as the president but as a parent to the slaughter of helpless children in a place where they should be safe.
Speaking at a memorial service in Newtown on Sunday, he responded this time as the president of a nation that has made a fetish of guns, a fetish that takes its toll in blood sacrifice from the young and the old, in little towns and large cities, in family homes and public space. And so without dismissing the heroic efforts of Sandy Hook’s teachers, its principal and school psychologist, the president bore in where the hurt is most acute:
“Can we truly say, as a nation, that we are meeting our obligations? Can we honestly say that we are doing enough to keep our children — all of them — safe from harm?”
In the wake of trauma such as this, what is clear is that “safe from harm” covers more than physical safety, more than the veneer of security provided by metal detectors, cameras, alarms and all the paperwork that attends visits to schools and so many other places.
To put words in the president’s mouth: Can we honestly say that we are doing enough to protect our children from the emotional and psychological terror let loose by the degree and frequency of the violence they see and hear about?
How do parents begin to persuade surviving children to go back and sit in a classroom where they have come face to face with death? Where the make-believe of movies and video games has turned horrifyingly real?
How do you teach the children to trust again that the gizmos and walls we have erected, supposedly to keep evil out, will work next time? Where will the emotional resilience come from, for the children or staff and teachers and the parents themselves?
What will we do to minimize the toxic stress that plays havoc with concentration? A decade after the 1999 mass shooting in Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., researchers found many who had witnessed the traumatic event still suffered the effects of stress.
Mercifully, we know that in time, the human spirit learns to cope with the worst trauma. Somehow, it adjusts to grief and arrives at some semblance of normalcy. Eventually, as James Russell Lowell put it in one crisp, poetic line, “Joy comes, grief goes, we know not how.”
Once again, as the victims in Newtown are laid to rest, we are lodged in the space between grief going and joy coming, a nation that knows not how to exorcise a bloody fetish.
Ofobike is the Beacon Journal chief editorial writer. She can be reached at 330-996-3513 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.