On May 16, while still in Israel on account of my mother’s stroke and death, my sister, listening to the radio, suddenly said: “There’s been a mass shooting.”
“Where?” I asked. Before she could answer, I said, “Forget it, I know where.”
It’s not like Israel doesn’t have shootings, especially between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians, not to mention the battles with Gaza. And it’s not like other countries never have mass shootings. But when you hear of one, you know the odds. You know that in all probability, it’s another mass shooting in the United States.
On May 16 it was Laguna Woods, California. Yesterday it was Uvalde, Texas.
By now we’ve had so many school shootings that many of us are numbed out with helplessness. But the two that really take my breath away are the mass shootings in elementary schools, in Sandy Hook ten years ago, and now the Robb Elementary School, where a massacre took place in a fourth-grade classroom. That means young kids, 9 or 10 years old. In Sandy Hook, they were first-graders and kindergarteners.
Sandy Hook is in Newtown, Connecticut. I pass the exit to Newtown every time I drive down to New York City on Interstate 84, and I think about those shootings. Just as I pored over the details of that event—the children, the parents, the killer, his family—I did the same now, and will continue as more details emerge.
All mass killings are terrible, including those aimed at certain groups of people for no reason other than their religion, skin color, culture, or immigration status. But I think a lot about Sandy Hook and now, Robb Elementary, because in those cases little children were targeted.
What do you do when you kill a child? You’re killing a girl or boy, a small person. You’re killing faces that show innocence and trust, eyes that haven’t yet endured cruelty and disappointment, that still open wide to contemplate the world with curiosity and optimism. Skin unwrinkled by worry, mouths that jabber and talk about anything at all, shiny teeth revealed by happy smiles, headbands and ribbons in their hair, braces or else a tooth that fell out just the night before, followed by a visit by the tooth fairy. Faces of vulnerability and hope; most of all, of innocence.
I think back to a time long ago when I had little patience for such faces. For various reasons, I grew out of my innocent phase very early. In old photos of me that I found in my mother’s apartment, I’m a wary child by the end of my first decade, a fixed smile on my face, straining to give the camera (and the person taking the picture) the photo it wishes, a photo of a happy, hopeful child. I stopped being that early on.
But as I grew up, I disliked friends who still had those faces, who believed in the basic goodness of the people around them, who took peaceful families for granted, who knew there was always a safe, loving home to return to.
It’s no accident that I never had children. I disliked their loud clamor on airplanes and in restaurants, didn’t join in the cooing and coddling by indulgent parents. Those scenes were alien to my experience and therefore felt unreal. Looking at those lucky children, I wanted to say: You know nothing about life, that’s why you have such pretty smiles and shiny eyes. You wouldn’t look like that if you knew what I know.
I got dogs instead, but was often impatient with them, too, in the early years, testy in the face of vulnerability, needs, and trust. Stop being so dependent, I wanted to say.
I think of the two young men who killed children in Newtown and Uvalde. They killed Charlotte, Daniel, and Olivia. They killed Xavier, Jose, and Navaeah. They also killed innocence, trust, hope, and love. Why? What happened to them that, confronted by scared youngsters, they didn’t immediately assure them that all would be well? Why didn’t they automatically take them into their arms and tell them that their whole life was ahead of them, and everything would turn out fine? Isn’t that what everybody would do? Isn’t that what you and I would do?
Now I would, without a doubt. But in the past I might have turned away, thin-lipped, and thought: What do you know about life?
I don’t know what Salvador Ramos and Adam Lanza felt when they looked upon those faces. They just aimed their guns and shot.
When we kill anyone or anything, who are we really killing? I scan the media for hints: He didn’t get on with his mother, he shot his grandmother, he felt excluded by other kids, he was a loner, he was bullied. I know who he killed outside, but what did he kill inside? What happened to his young life?
After the mass killing in Newtown, I thought there was no way we wouldn’t pass gun control legislation. Ten years later, the odds are still not good. But I don’t resonate when political leaders or the police call the killers monsters. “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them.” It doesn’t say that God created mankind in his own image except for Salvador Ramos and Adam Lanza.
Please remember, in both cases they shot the woman taking care of them first, as if only then could they go on to kill young children. What partts of life couldn’t they deal with anymore?
When we say the names of those who were killed, let’s add these names as well: Innocence, trust, optimism, hope. Love.
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