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THERE WAS A MODEST but moving memorial last week at Salve Regina University to observe the shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. on Dec. 14, 2012.
The bells at the university’s chapel played “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” followed by tolling of a bell 26 times, 20 for the students who were slaughtered; six for the adults killed by a man who began the massacre by murdering his mother and finishing it by killing himself.
You probably remember some of what happened: the students were in the first grade and were 6- and 7-years old.
Twenty of them.
The numbers are at once so small and too large.
At the time, I felt that this would be one of those moments that bend history, when change comes almost instantly, because we all agree that some things cannot be tolerated.
I still feel that way. It’s not okay to go into a school with weapons of war and kill 6- and 7-year- olds – lots of them.
And silly you, if you think the same thing.
BY THE WAY, my point is not gun control, although surely that’s what was called for after the incident at Sandy Hook school.
There should have been a national agreement to outlaw the kind of guns that make mass shootings possible and efficient, with common sense regulations for the other kinds of guns.
That did not happen on a country level.
Connecticut did toughen its laws. But over the past nine years, Congressional efforts have failed, and many states have made gun handling easier. Texas this year allowed most people 21 and older to carry a handgun in public, no need for a state permit. Firearms have proliferated, making suicide more convenient and fostering all sorts of mayhem.
What does it take to impress – if not all of us – enough of us?
WHEN I FIRST STARTED writing for newspapers in the 1960s, it was an article of faith that if you wrote something on Page One, most readers would agree it mattered.
A story about a family living in a car, or worse, a lean-to in a state park, would likely result in phone calls to the paper offering money, food, maybe a vacant apartment.
A story about a state legislator with his hand in the public cookie jar would jump-start the machinery of law enforcement, and the offender might immediately slink away, saying, to the disgust of his family, that he wanted to spend more time with them.
Big numbers helped. One or two people dying in a tenement fire didn’t have the same impact as a hundred concert-goers perishing in a nightclub fire, leading to major building code reforms.
BUT SINCE SANDY HOOK, I haven’t felt the same. In that case, a lot of people put the deaths of 20 children down to collateral damage, the price of unfettered gun ownership.
Similarly, the wildfires, floods, tornadoes and other natural catastrophes making headlines lately haven’t convinced our country or others of the planet’s nations that a catastrophe of Biblical scale is on its way if we don’t slow and reverse climate change.
The latest wave of Covid hasn’t led to a decision to end the pandemic through worldwide availability of vaccine, or even to persuade millions to get vaccines where they are handy.
Some countries have enough nuclear weapons to end civilization and more nations would like them, but I’m guessing that if you’re like me, we don’t give all of that a second thought.
Isn’t our basic instinct as human beings supposed to be our own survival? At least the survival of our children?
SALVE REGINA UNIVERSITY’S memorial came about because a freshman, Anne Marie Carlson, thought something should be done to remember Sandy Hook. She was in the fourth grade at that school at the time, and this was her first year away from Newtown during the anniversary.
That’s right. Children who weren’t murdered at Sandy Hook have been growing up during the last nine years, and now one of them was here in Newport, halfway through her first year of college.
Anne Marie told university officials that, ironically, she couldn’t be at the bell-ringing, because she was scheduled to take a final exam when it began. In other words, modestly, she didn’t demand an exemption from the exam timing.
Indeed, being exam week, only a handful of people stood outside the chapel.
It took a little time to get through it. Seconds ticked away each time the bell rang. You’d wait, uncomfortably, wondering if something was wrong with the mechanism, or if somebody had counted wrong. Or maybe that it had stopped. Maybe the Sandy Hook children also wondered if the shooting had stopped.
I don’t know why the nation wasn’t moved by the Sandy Hook massacre, and why it hasn’t agreed to do everything possible about the dire warnings of new shootings and other catastrophes to come.
And maybe that’s not always going to be the case.
Maybe each time, with each reminder, with each tolling of the bell, enough of us will agree: we really do care about our survival. And that of our children.