Brookfield Basics

A column about history, culture, policy, and things in between.

Sandy Hook - And an Unweeded Garden


Without the aid of pictures, I try to remember what they looked like.  I try to remember their voices when I walked through the door at day's end, and they would scream, "Daddy"! 

Like headlights trying to pierce a dense fog, my thoughts grope to recapture their bouncing smiles and unfettered innocence.  I try to remember how willingly they offered their trust; an act as natural as breathing.  I recall how implicitly they placed that trust into the hands of any adult who entered the school.

And then I try to imagine our kids - bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh - looking into those same hands and seeing not gentle encouragement, or kindly affirmation; but a semi-automatic weapon, spewing fire, mayhem, and death.   

I search for the words Barb and I would have shared with them had they come home that night, our hearts breaking with the necessity of doing so.  And I try to imagine the anguish of our sundered hearts had they not come home.  

Wanton, widespread, unprovoked murder is becoming an all too familiar story.  And however coarse or unfeeling it might be to say so, there is a difficult dynamic that I believe needs to be recognized.  The increasing frequency of such horrific events is dulling our capacity, even our willingness, to properly absorb, contextualize, and respond to them.  The horror of such atrocity is being muted by the relentlessly gnashing maw that is our news cycle.  Thirteen years ago - Columbine.  Five years ago -Virginia Tech.  Nearly two years ago - Garbrielle Giffords and others moved down in a public square.  And right here in our own State, indeed, in the center of our own community; the 2005 murders at the Sheraton Hotel, and the recent Sikh Temple and Azana Salon murder sprees.  The week of Christmas and the dawning New Year - we witnessed the murder of a young Police Officer; a noble woman committed to public safety and to the High School students she mentored and led.

Finally, as I reflect upon the innocents of Newtown, I consider my pending trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where amongst the millions killed, were hundreds of thousands of children pulled from their homes, pulled even from the very arms of their parents, and macheted to death; cut down like so much human sugar cane. But unlike Newtown, the media had little interest in that story; a second Holocaust that saw the African soil run crimson with the blood of ebony children.

But like a viper, Newtown struck.  Deep and penetrating its bight; a sting that leaves our hearts stricken and our moral compasses spinning in fractured, disoriented outrage.  I do not suggest that the loss endured by surviving loved ones in other episodes is smaller, or less keenly felt.  But the age and innocence of the victims serve to distinguish Newtown in our emotional economy.         

When trying to formulate my own thoughts on such things; my first look is always back, not forward.  Nothing illuminates the path of the future quite as well as the light of the past, and so; I look to the thoughts of larger, wiser people.  Verses came to mind, presented as half-ghosted images of thought.  Alexander Solzhenitsen;  the man who William F. Buckley called, "the voice of baptized humanity" told us the following.  In a short passage torn straight from his own Dark Night of the Soul as he lay on rotting straw in the Soviet Gulag: "gradually it was confirmed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through States, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart".   

I also thought of the 18th Century German philosopher Johann von Goethe's insightfully pithy comment, "mankind marches forever forward; man stays forever the same".   And lastly, I recalled the words of the greatest writer who ever lived:  "How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable seem to me the ways of this world.  Fie upon it; 'tis an unweeded garden".  Thus Hamlet.

In my lifetime we have enjoyed not only the expectation, but the reality of generally civilized behavior.  We are seeing that fount of behavior erode, and before our very eyes, the veneer of conduct upon which orderly societies are founded, grows ever thinner.  We are seeing the proverbial garden of our society grow choked with weeds; its very soil struggling to yield the crops of law abiding conduct and civil discourse.  Consider along with Newtown and the other aforementioned incidents, the unprecedented, fratricidal savagery of the Mexican Drug Cartels that have wantonly murdered forty thousand Mexicans - FORTY THOUSAND.  And lest, in the anesthesized haze of our suburban comfort, we assign that to the problems of a foreign, impoverished country, consider the gangs that are terrorizing and all but swallowing whole sections of our Nation's third largest City, just one hundred miles to the south.  Or consider the gangs, smaller in scale but not in their perversely insidious impact, on the south side of Milwaukee. 


This incident has so many components that can and should be explored:  mental illness, guns, appropriate meausures for the ensuring of public safety, as well as recongnizing the limits of those same measures, and more.  And I hope we will give some thought to the increasingly shameless behavior of our media, which has jettisoned whatever vestige of discretion it might have once possessed, and is now fully engaged in their new found sport of tragedy trafficking.  Sandy Hook has revealed its lack of respect, and how willing it is to unscrew the cap from the hydrant of human misery; and pour it onto the flat screens of our televisions and computer screens.     

But I keep coming back to Hamlet's unweeded garden; a garden populated by the likes of Newtown's killer. What is our response to be?  What are we to tell our children and young people?  Are we even willing to have those tough discussions?  Do we not owe it to ourselves, and to the victims of all the aforementioned atrocities, to recall the timeless query posed by Francis Schaeffer, "how should we then live"?    

Living in the age we do, with its heretofore unimagined technologies, gadgets, comforts, and distractions, we are seduced.  Because we are informed from a hand held device, the touch of our fingers summoning its luminous screen to conjure the news, information, and happenings of an entire planet, we think are are smarter, more evolved than our forefathers.  We are neither, and our intellectual hubris is all the more indisious because we are so unaware of it.  

I'll further explore these matters a bit down the road.  But let's acknowledge the obvious - we live in dark times.  And there is little reason to expect this will change.  Why do I quote Solzhenitsen, Goethe, and Shakespeare?  Because I believe that even as we legitimately recoil from such horror, we need the light of such giants; we need the time honored and time tested wisdom of the past to guide our way forward.      

I close by again turning to Shakespeare, and to the notion of light.  These lines, spoken by Juliet of her Romeo, were repeated  by a stricken Robert F. Kennedy at the eulogy of his older brother; I repeat them here on behalf of Victoria Leigh Soto.  Ms. Soto was the Sandy Hook teacher who hid her youngsters in a closet, told the assasin they were in the gym, then consciously walked into a hailstorm of lead, willingly offering her own life as forfeit for her beloved students.  Can we even imagine her quick thinking, her firm resolve, her selflessly intrepid courage?  And can we honor her memory by making a conscious attempt to infuse our lives with some of her same light?   And can we further honor her by choosing to set aside the pejorative-laced tirades we see and hear on the extremeties of policy debates that result from such an incident?


For now, the words of Shakespeare honor her best:

"When she shall die, take her and cut her into little stars.  And she shall make the face of heaven so fine, that all the world will be in love with night; and pay no worship to the garish sun".


I believe her light is in the evening sky; up there with John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and all the Sandy Hook victims.  I believe they are whole and well and complete; far beyond the need of our prayers or sympathies.  It is their survivors who need such things. 

And I believe we can use the light of her courage to help illuminate a better path for our own steps.  

I believe that.

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