I have spent the last year of my life carefully researching and writing about civil and human rights in the Middle East and North Africa. I have heard details about torture, interviewed people who have lost loved ones in the uprisings, and been sent horrifying images of innocents slaughtered as regimes fell.
I was able to keep writing, and to maintain a civil discourse, through distance. I set aside the images I was seeing, and the faces of those involved—so twisted as they were with pain—for the purpose of analysis and reporting.
I did so in the belief that knowledge is power, in the hopes that, through knowing what was happening to our human brethren so far away, we might collectively pause and pay attention.
There was no room in those writings for the private thoughts and worries behind the words I published. In those thoughts were the subtle, yet suffocating fears that some day such a degree of pain and loss might hit close to home.
And so I compartmentalized it, made it “far away,” rationalizing the geographical distance to mean safety. In an ironic twist, after the catastrophic shooting in Newton, Connecticut, I have an inbox full of condolence messages for our nation’s children from folks in Syria, Pakistan, and beyond. Today, I face the fact that the slaughter is at my doorstep, yet we are not at war with anyone but ourselves.
I live about 40 minutes from Newtown. I grew up in this small state, where one is about two people removed from any given family or town. Everybody is somebody’s cousin or old schoolmate. On Friday, amid the annual Christmas celebration at my university, I received word that something very bad was happening at Sandy Hook Elementary.
I instinctively remembered Columbine, and thought incredulously that such a thing couldn’t happen at an elementary school. As I turned on the live feed of events, I felt physically ill. In a panic, I left the office to go pick up my daughter from her Pre-K class.
On the way my kindly taxi driver, a native of India, turned on NPR and informed me that his family in Delhi had called to relay the news of the twenty-something people who died at an elementary school. “What is wrong with America?” they had asked.
I understood that embedded in his retelling of the story was a real question to me about this country, a country he had adopted as his own. My mind in disarray, I answered quietly that I did not know. When I picked up my daughter, still asleep on her nap mat, I burst into tears. I hugged her hard and tight, and in her sleepy stupor she knowingly said “It’s okay, mama. I love you.” Children are nothing if not intuitive.
Ever since the shooting, I burst into tears spontaneously. I close my eyes and try to chase away creeping images of babies just like mine covered in blood. I have sat collapsed in a pew, wondering if there was time for these little ones to suffer or feel pain.
I can’t help but imagine myself in place of the parents of Sandy Hook, anxiously waiting for my child to emerge only to find myself with my arms empty, and a home full of holiday gifts that will never be opened. If I had to bury my child, I would want to crawl into the grave with her.
Certainly, the suffering for those who remain has just begun, and the childhood of the surviving children has been cut short. Not only is my heart broken, I am broken. It is difficult to articulate the depths to which this tight knit state, and indeed this nation, are shattered.
This time, it happened down the road. But in truth, it could be any one of us, anywhere. I have internalized this realization both as a parent and an educator. I am the daughter of a Hartford (CT) public school teacher, the granddaughter of a schoolteacher, and am myself in higher education. Teaching is in my blood, as is the belief that a school is a sacred space of hope and opportunity.
Yet the classroom space is not inviolable, and has not been for some time. Most of us who teach in any capacity have had trainings and discussions on identifying ‘troubled’ youth and how to deal with an “active shooter.” While this may assuage some anxiety, it does not remove the danger.
Our schools and universities are the front lines of this war with no name. As they reported on teachers whose bodies were found atop those of their students, “There but for the grace of God go I,” thought many of us.
Presently, we are too exhausted and overwhelmed to be angry, but that will come soon enough. As this community tries to pull itself together, we must begin asking hard questions. We must talk. We must, as a nation, figure out what malady has become so widespread that our response to a massacre is not, “How could this be?” but rather a familiar and practiced “Again? Where?” We are well rehearsed in our grief, a reality that is in and of itself disturbing.
There is a pervasive sickness in our midst. We are churning out young, disaffected men who put an end to their problems by destroying as many lives as they can, usually before taking their own. These young men, the products of our cities and towns, are so disconnected from others as to view the annihilation of innocents as a vindication of their own self-loathing.
What is producing them? What is creating such fundamentally broken minds? We can’t wash our hands of this and say it was a terrible, “isolated” incident. It was not. This happens over and over, a horror show à l’Americaine: Columbine, Virginia Tech, the Colorado theater, the Sikh temple in Wisconsin–the list is as interminably long as it is tragic.
As a society, we have all failed in addressing and preventing the massacres. Yet at what point can we begin to trace back and pinpoint when a person becomes homicidal? Is it even possible? And do we ever as a nation get to rationally and reasonably question accessibility to weapons or reliable access to mental health care?
Even as we bury 20 children and the 6 adults who cared for them [as well as the shooter's mother], it seems we are still unable to make any real inquiries or take any responsibility without jumping to the usual defensive political lines. It takes us nowhere. It does nothing. We know we must understand this tragedy and prevent others. If knowledge is power, we are in desperate need of learning. Otherwise, those children will have died in vain.
*Dr. Lara N. Dotson-Renta is an Assistant Dean/Assistant Professor at Quinnipiac University. Her book “Immigration, Popular Culture, and the Re-Routing of European Muslim Identity” was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2012.