The first year we were married, my wife served as a part-time youth pastor in a sleepy exurb. The town was typical New England: lush grass and immaculate homes in the town square; then down the hill nearer water’s edge, the echo of a working class neighborhood. More modest houses, quaint in their faded shingling, clustered along the riverbank.
My wife’s church was just up from the river. Occasionally I’d get there early and take a quick walk along the water, crossing the bridge just below the local elementary school. More commonly though I’d be running late, so I’d quietly sneak up to the balcony, where the parents with young children sat. It was chaos up there, but the best and most beautiful kind. Kids laughing, kids crying, kids jumping off the pews. The dance of childhood upon the wooden folds of God.
When my wife left Newtown UMC in 2010, it was those children that I remembered most. The youth of Sandy Hook in all their precious glory, all their antsy love and hymn-shrieked din. It breaks my heart that not all those children are still with us. And it breaks further that those who survived will forever wonder how and why we failed them. What happened that their brothers and sisters, their cousins and friends, are no longer here?
I study political violence for a living. At one level such violence is not a mystery. How easily it begets itself, cascading ever downward like water over stone. Poor governance, panicked fear, a spark: suddenly all is stripped bare, our souls strewn about like so much raw earth. Acts that were once unthinkable can come to seem necessary, even sanctified.
But the violence we suffer here, the violence that plagues our homes and churches and schools, is not so straightforward. We are not at war with ourselves. There is no reason it should continue. And yet we willingly endure these killings as if they were acts of God.
The cost of that willfulness continues to accrue. In the years since Newtown a former classmate of mine, charismatic as can be, was lost to a gun. Meanwhile, at my university, a student with schizophrenia walked into a gun shop, purchased a firearm, and then returned home. Months later he turned the firearm on his roommates and himself.
When will this madness end? Which family will be next to mourn a daughter or son?
These are pained questions. Yet they are pained not because we have no answers but because we do. We can end this if we wish.
The summer before my wife started working in Sandy Hook, we traveled to Syria on our honeymoon. Atop its worn tells the dance of childhood beat out no less wondrously. In the years since I’ve thought often of the kids we met there. How would I reply if they asked why their futures have been taken from them? Or worse, how would I explain why they alone must be afraid of the sky, with its molten barrels that whistle down in a tumblesong of death?
These questions too are pained. At times the loss and destruction in Syria can feel unbearable in its scale and intensity. But it’s impossible for me to think about Syria without also, in the wake of Newtown, dwelling on our failings nearer to home. In the decade plus since I finished college, the United States has lost as many lives to gunpowder as Syria has in its entire civil war. I’m familiar enough with Aleppo to find that staggering.
The conflict in Syria is not insoluble, though its solution will prove daunting. By contrast, our own brokenness bespeaks a clearer fix. We know how to make our guns safer, just as we have made our cars safer and our drugs safer. And we can change norms around gun use as surely as we changed the norms around smoking. All that is missing is the will.
On Tuesday President Obama will speak a great deal about our broad future, about how best to ensure that the violence of today yields to the peace of tomorrow. As with anyone I have my own hopes about what specifically he ought to propose. But in truth I’m also hoping for something more: that the President might somehow find the voice to lead us past our own blindness.
The morning light is on the horizon yet. May his words lend us the vision to glimpse it.