A US flag flies at half-staff in honor of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victims, Wednesday, Decmber 19, 2012, in Newtown, Connecticut. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
I was a panelist on an MSNBC show during the noon hour of December 14. When the show began, we had information about a school shooting in Connecticut. We believed there were three people hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries and a gunman who had committed suicide. Scary stuff, but probably a story that would occupy our attention for the proverbial fifteen minutes. But by the end of the hour, we’d heard reports that at least eighteen children under the age of 10 had been murdered in cold blood as they huddled in their classrooms.
It was a brutal hour, and one I’ll never forget. We had come to one of those moments by which we measure the end of an era: before the misery, grief and terror of this event, and after. Even as the initial reports came in, those of us on the set called for action. We didn’t quite know what had happened, but we knew it was awful. Something must be done!
As the details of Adam Lanza’s murderous spree became clearer, many more Americans took up that call. In the first seventy-two hours after the massacre, 150,000 people signed a petition on the White House website calling for legislation limiting gun access. No previous topic on the site had ever received so much support. Something must be done!
During his remarks in Newtown on that Sunday evening, President Obama also spoke of the need to act. “In the coming weeks,” he said, “I will use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens, from law enforcement to mental health professionals to parents and educators, in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this.” Though he declined to offer any policy specifics, it was clear the president also felt: something must be done!
This is because the Newtown murders were not just tragic; they were an act of terrorism. The slain first-graders and their teachers were not targeted because of their national identity, as were the victims of the 9/11 attacks. They were not murdered because of their race, as was the case in the decades of unchecked American lynchings. They were not killed because of their religious beliefs, like the Sikh victims of a mass shooting in Wisconsin just a few months back. In fact, their undisputed innocence and relative privilege are part of what makes their deaths so horrifying—so terrorizing. It is also what makes me nervous about the calls for action that are on everyone’s lips, including mine.
After 9/11, we were caught in a state of national post-traumatic stress. We not only mourned having lost so many; we were terrified at the loss of our sense of security. On September 10, 2001, we knew we lived in a dangerous world. But we were Americans, and some things just don’t happen here… until they do. On December 13, 2012, we knew we lived in a country where thousands of people are murdered by guns—30,000 in 2011 alone—but we thought young children attending schools in prosperous, peaceful communities were immune. Some things just don’t happen there. Until they do.