Cold and lifeless, the bodies of twenty little children lying where they were gunned down on the morning of December 14, 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It is a crime scene that used to be a school, and the medical examiner’s team is working through the night to make sure there are no mistakes, no shadow of doubt about the identity of those children shot at close range by a 20 year-old man, whose name everyone now knows. A state trooper would be assigned to each anguished family in close-knit Newtown, Connecticut, that night, as they wait for confirmation of what they already know. And stunned families all around the world asking why . . .
We have been in this place before.
It was the morning of March 13, 1996, when the clocks stopped in the sleepy town of Dunblane, Scotland. Teacher, Gwen Mayor, was with her Primary One pupils – just 5 and 6 years old – in the assembly hall of Dunblane Primary School when the nightmare began. A 43 year old man on a shooting rampage burst inside, shooting indiscriminately at teachers and children, before turning the gun on himself. His attack lasted three crazed, interminable minutes, during which Ms. Mayor did what teachers at Sandy Hook would do seventeen years later – everything they could to shield their students from the gunfire, to provide shelter from the storm.
There are no words, and there is no way to explain to our children or to each other how a man could stroll into a school armed with four handguns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition and start to shoot, the carnage coming to an end only after he turned the gun on himself. And then seventeen years later, still no words, still no way to comprehend how a young man could kill his mother in her bed, then get in her car and drive to an elementary school where he would kill 20 children – aged six and seven – and six adults, before killing himself. We know not what caused the shooters to lose the humanity they surely once had. We know only what they left behind and that what they did forever changed two tiny places, an ocean apart.
Watching from afar, I am struck by the noblest expressions of humanity that emerge from such tragedy; by the immeasurable kindness of those people Mr. Rogers calls “the helpers.”
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.
We can all be helpers, as a heartbroken President Obama reminded us in the wake of the Newtown massacre, because “while nothing can fill the space of a lost child or loved one, all of us can extend a hand to those in need, to remind them that we are there for them, that we are praying for them, that the love they felt for those they lost endures not just in their memories, but also in ours.”
This silent night, I am remembering again Dunblane and those little children who would be all grown up now with driving licenses and jobs, college degrees, marriages, mortgages, perhaps even children of their own. Like many of us, they would be planning for Christmas, hanging lights, trimming the tree, wrapping gifts, spending too much. But these will remain unfulfilled wishes for 16 children taken from us by a man with a pair of pliers, four handguns, and 700 rounds of ammunition. A man who slipped into their little school and opened fire.
May we never forget them:
Victoria Clydesdale, 5
Emma Crozier, 5
Melissa Currie, 5
Charlotte Dunn, 5
Kevin Hasell, 5
Ross Irvine, 5
David Kerr, 5
Mhairi McBeath, 5
Brett McKinnon,Abigail McLennan, 5
Emily Morton, 5
Sophie North, 5
John Petrie, 5
Joanna Ross, 5
Hannah Scott, 5
Megan Turner, 5
“So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart.” BILLY COLLINS