Zero degrees of separation in 'the new normal'
Three years ago, my daughter and her husband had to pick out a new school system for their three children. They were moving from Connecticut to the Miami area for my son-in-law's new job.
They didn’t look first for a house. They looked for the best possible schools. They chose Parkland.
Until Wednesday, most people here had never heard of Parkland, Fla. Until Dec. 14, 2012, most people outside of Connecticut had never heard of Sandy Hook. Now those two public school systems and hundreds of others are in the circle of suffering no one can contemplate without a shudder.
On Wednesday, as cable news channels reported on the air, from the air, a variety of law enforcement and terrorism experts weighed in. One, former New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, referred to this as “the new normal,” causing the anchorwoman to gasp, “Oh, God, I hope not.”
Bratton’s expertise is in prevention as well responding to emergencies, but he refused to offer much hope for stopping these mass attacks. All he and the other speakers had to offer were strategies and training for emergency response that aim to limit the number of lives lost. One expert said it was an advantage to have taken the suspect alive, because police might be able to discern his motive.
My grandkids weren’t in Parkland on Wednesday. A few months ago the family moved to another Florida community. But their former classmates were there. My daughter texted, “Please pray for our friends.”
In the agonizing days after 9/11, we all compulsively conducted the awful exercise of identifying the victims not just by name but by association — a neighbor's nephew, the bond trader who grew up nearby, a son's former co-worker. The New York Times undertook to give each victim a face and a brief biography so that they did not die just as anonymous targets.
With each successive mass shooting, we now practice a rolling version of that effort. The playgrounds built in memory of the child victims of Sandy Hook, including one in a New London park, exemplify that yearning and a solution for keeping their memory alive.
The Times reported Thursday that since Sandy Hook the country has had at least 273 school shootings, with 439 people shot. The number of fatalities is 121. That is what Bratton meant by "the new normal."
If we can't accept the deaths of 17 more students and teachers as normal — and our guts know we can't — we have several battles to fight.
The victims must always be kept in our sight as the human persons they were. Wednesday morning they were gobbling breakfast, looking for their cleats, doing their hair. The shooter made them into anonymous targets. If we leave them that way, he steals their humanity and ours.
Nor can we succumb to the natural temptation to let our horror at Wednesday's incident fade. The memories of Columbine and Sandy Hook remain stark, and we need that emotion to help resist the acceptance of this level of violence as part of the American scene.
Accounts of the heroism of teachers Wednesday reflect the grim in-service training that has become essential for classroom educators. But it has been two decades since Columbine introduced the figure of the disaffected student as a mortal threat. At some point the need to be constantly on the defense has to be a distraction for frightened kids and wary teachers.
Early reports are that the shooter, Nikolas Cruz, 19, was widely known for acting disturbed and violent. The AR-15 rifle he used was purchased legally, according to officials. After Sandy Hook, a Connecticut panel of experts found that weapons and ammunition were readily available, even to those with a documented history of aberrant behavior. The state acted to tighten restrictions, and the incidents have gone down.
Connecticut acted because the agony of Sandy Hook was our own. Parkland isn't somebody else's kids, somebody else's problem. It belongs to my family, to all of us and the people we elect. If we think otherwise, we're agreeing that the new normal is normal.
Lisa McGinley is a member of The Day Editorial Board.