Michael Hagan ’15
Friday morning, I was refilling my coffee at Ray when a disturbing tweet appeared in my timeline:
“@WTOP: Conn. school shooting was reported at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown”
As I walked to my exam in Harkins, I read this:
“@WTOP: UPDATE: Dispatcher says teacher shot in the foot in Newtown, Conn. Unclear if only injury in reported school shooting”
I wrongly interpreted this update to indicate that the situation was under control and that authorities were assessing the scene of the crime. Disturbed, though slightly relieved by my wrong interpretation, I powered down my phone and began my exam. It took me about an hour and twenty minutes to answer objective questions about Catholic social ethics and to write an essay about the Christian understanding of what it means to be fully human, and immediately after handing Fr. Al my blue book, I turned on my phone to learn more details about the crisis I thought was over. I read an hours’ worth of updates as quickly as I could. The most recent reports confirmed that at least one student had died and that others were injured. As soon as I felt like I had a grip on the developing crisis, the most disturbing, heart-breaking, and terrifying words I had ever read appeared on my phone screen. Never could I have imagined the news in the palm of my hand:
“@WTOP: UPDATE: CBS News quotes officials as saying 27 people are dead, more than a dozen children, in Connecticut”
I grew tense and shivered despite the warmth of the Slavin Lounge I had just entered. A landslide of images flooded my mind. My focus was fixated on the many children in my life- my ten year-old sister, younger members of my extended family, and the elementary school students I volunteer with through children’s ministry. In my heart, it was as though they themselves were students at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Even as I write, I can’t tell what principally stirs this emotion: genuine empathy for the devastated people of Newtown, or fearful understanding of the truth that this could just as easily have happened in my sister’s classroom at Damascus Elementary School.
I spent much of the day unable to move away from the television. I watched with friends as the tragedy continued to unfold. Our hearts broke as we heard about the moment many parents realized their children had not walked out of the school. There were and are tears; there was and is anger. I confess another emotion, though, and I sincerely believe that if you look deeply enough into yourself, you will find it as well. I feel guilt. I feel the guilt that we share as a nation for breeding violence and failing to strike it at its roots. We share guilt for our policies on mental health and gun-violence prevention. We share guilt for building and perpetuating a culture that glorifies weapons and makes light of violence. We share guilt for neglecting and alienating groups and individuals, and for failing to identify the often glaring though sometimes illusive red-flags of insidious intentions.
We are guilty of allowing delusional self-proclaimed cowboys to hold gun laws hostage, and of remaining silent while the loudest voices on such matters belong to gunpowder-high ideologues who dupe themselves into thinking that concealed firearms on every citizen’s side will actually save the world. I saved a letter to the editor from one of last semester’s circulations of “The Cowl” in which a Providence College alumnus dared to lay blame on the victims of the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre for not carrying concealed weapons to class. This is the kind of insanity that we’ve let overrun our nation.
Our sin (principally of omission) has been easy to overlook- the scourge of gun violence takes its toll primarily in more crowded and disadvantaged settings than a ranch retreat in the American southwest or a pristine lawn on a northeastern college campus. But the violence we breed is coming back for us. It’s creeping into places where we least expect it. It is coming to our schools. It is coming to our malls. It is coming to our places of worship. It is coming to our movie theaters. Yesterday, it came for the most vulnerable among us, and took twenty children- all seven years old or younger. The culture of violence is growing worse. The gun-culture is gaining ground. The consequences are real.
I stayed glued to the news for most of the day until 4:30 Mass, which was offered for the victims and others involved in and affected by the massacre. At Mass and in prayer since, I hold up, first and foremost, the victims and their families. I thank God for the heroism of Sandy Hook faculty members in particular, who had nothing more than their bodies to put between their students and a gun. Their witness inspires me and only strengthens my aspiration to be an educator myself. I do pray for the gunman, and ask not so much “why” in the immediate sense, but rather “what;” what conditions, course of events, or forces natural or supernatural in his life drove him into that school with murderous intent? I pray for victims of violence everywhere, whose stories we really rarely hear. All of this leads me to pray for action. We need change in policy, culture, and relationships. We need to take responsibility for the monsters that we create, and take individual as well as public initiative to prevent future tragedy.
There are a number of arenas in which the campaign to end this brand of senseless violence must be fought, and they will be explored in more depth in future FriarSideChats. Until then, though, may we keep Newtown in our thoughts and prayers, and may we take overdue action to deliver our nation from heartbreaking and presently imminent future tragedy. We must eliminate the term “random” from our description of “acts of violence,” and overcome the powerful forces working to prevent an honest conversation about the causes of gun violence in this country. I will not wait to have to bury a sister, a parent, or a close friend before I speak up. Forgive us, Newtown, for our failure to address this matter head-on in the past, and thus for idly standing by as part of the problem.