Photo: Kelly Bracken
Having spent an hour on the elliptical, I'd worked up a pretty good sweat and was exiting the doors of the gym last Friday when I unplugged the earpiece of my iPhone. On its screen, my iTunes workout playlist dissolved to a friend's Facebook message:
"Praying for the 18 innocent little souls and their families"
Even 30 years ago, the implications of such words would not have escaped me. But then I would have attributed the assumed fate of those children to some unfortunate misadventure something that, while tragic, had not been consciously orchestrated. A fire, or bus accident. Some structural collapse.
On this date, I did not.
Getting inside my car, I called the wife and asked her if she'd heard anything about a school shooting.
"No, hold on."
Within seconds she was relating to me what she'd found on the Internet regarding the horrors of what had taken place in Newtown, Conn.: Twenty children and six adults slaughtered. I hung up then jabbed the AM dial of the car radio and listened as still more details emerged on the horror. I found my eyes burning...probably from sweat.
Back at home, I turned on the TV. It came on with images of crying children, their little hands clasped upon one another's diminutive shoulders as they were being led single-file from the school grounds. I watched in horror at the spectacle of cameras and microphones being shoved in the faces of already traumatized kids.
What were these media ghouls thinking? Where were the responsible adults to put their calloused idiocies in check?
Interspersed with these images were still others, those of police officers rapidly descending on the school grounds, their facial expressions a mélange of courage, horror, and sensitivity. I wondered what they were feeling at the time. I thought about what they would be feeling later.
But the image that stood out was that of a terrified girl in a blue sweater sobbing in the middle of one of the evacuation lines.
A mere child.
Watching her, I recalled another child, one who'd once sat in a movie theater and watched a John Wayne movie called “Big Jake.” I remembered how he and the rest of the audience had sat silently as numerous men, women, and children were shot and killed on screen. Not until the machete death of a dog did the audience register any protest, and then it came with a collective, "Oh....!"
The child in that long ago movie theater had been bewildered at the relative weights of life that the audience had apportioned those on screen, and wondered how it was that one loss was somehow deemed more deserving of sympathy than another.
Now an adult, that same child has come to somewhat understand the gradient scale by which we measure travesties, by which we commit our sympathies, and how cruel fate can be for children whose lives were taken from them before they'd truly begun. How upon hearing that the shooter had killed himself, he could think to himself: Oh. Good.
I even understood the desire of those to find some silver lining, to somehow extract from the tragedy some profit, a catalyst for change. And the recommendations came fast and furious, and none faster than in the law enforcement community as thoughts, opinions, and speculations were shared in cyberspace. There were even comments reflecting on the number of such shooters whose tox screens would reveal all manner of attempted psychiatric chemical intervention.
On the pro-active front, some suggested that teachers should be taught to fire handguns, and armed like their Israeli counterparts (or have on-duty officers assigned to school campuses as in the state of Georgia). But while there are American teachers that might prove adept at getting target acquisition on some madman, many don't like firearms, and might not only prove resistant to such training but possibly incapable of successfully deploying them. In any event, I don't see school administrators beating down doors to get training with the same enthusiasm of those determined to have firearms seized or restricted.
Personally, I wondered why officers themselves—on-duty and not—couldn't play more of a preventative role. Within a small block of my local elementary school live at least four active or retired officers, myself among them. When my son attended it, I often wondered if the school would begrudge my occasionally sitting in some unoccupied office as I wrote for POLICE. And I had every reason to suspect that other officers would be willing to stop by the school and lend an unsubsidized vigil.
I believe that if enough cops across the country are given permission to hang around their local schools, and the practice becomes common knowledge, that it might be enough to deter a prospect contemplating an attack; failing that, it might at least mitigate the losses attendant to an attack. But then, the skeptic in me can't help but suspect that school administrators would be of a mindset similar to the proprietors of certain venues who prohibit armed off-duty cops.
As it was, I was left to contemplate the possibility of hearing gunshots and approaching sirens.
To paraphrase forest Gump, "I'm not a smart man, but I know what crazy is." I know it covers a broad range of psychologically compromised individuals, from those whose messiah complexes lead them to believe they are Jesus or the president, to the straitjacketed, foaming-at-the-mouth-gibbering-jabbering madmen. I also know that mental illness comes in more subtle forms and that it walks among us and lives with others that love and care about those afflicted with it.
Among the caregivers of the mentally ill are those who find themselves the unwitting aiders and abettors to their loved ones’ crimes. Not unlike the governor who keeps his zombie-fied daughter chained up in "The Walking Dead," they are possessed of a hell-bent astigmatism that prevents them from seeing a danger so clearly before them.
In the case of the former, not only do they fail to alert authorities to prospective threats, but inadvertently avail these people the means to carry out these threats. In Nancy Lanza's case, it was the apparently disastrous attempt to bond with her reportedly autistic son Adam through firearms.
I do not intend to made some blanket condemnation of firearms, as I am a strong believer in Second Amendment rights. But I would question the wisdom of availing arsonists matches with which to play, and given the fact that Adam's only friend was a computer screen, I have to wonder what Adam Lanza dully absorbed through it. How many rousing rounds of "Call of Duty" he might have played. How much he studied mass shootings that preceded his atrocity.
Nor do I do mean to sound callous towards these family members; indeed, they not only have my sympathy, but my empathy. In previous blogs I have written of my own familial and professional experiences with mental illness, from routinely having to respond to local mental health centers to intervene, to dealing with my own father's mental illness and having to put police hazard entries on his address.
Watching that TV and watching all of the events in Newtown, I anticipated that the days and weeks to come would be filled with renewed calls to arms by some and for nenewed control by others, and my own need to offer some thoughts if not profundity.
But sitting there I noticed that my perspiration from my workout had given way to a general dampness that adhered my shirt to my torso and I somehow felt much, much colder than when I'd first left the gym. I realized that I needed to take a shower.
A long shower.