Helpers

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December 16, 2012 by Louis Ritzinger

There is a place in my hometown of Newtown, Connecticut – I suspect many of you may be familiar with it now – where one can stand and look down upon the main intersection at the center of town. A large flag stands proudly, if quixotically in the center of the street between two picturesque New England churches, and on a clear day one can see the wooded countryside stretch on for miles. If it weren’t for the hills, I believe you could see on until the horizon.

My parents used to take our family Christmas picture there in autumn just when the leaves had reached the peak crescendo of their swan song, blanketing our little village in vibrant, yet delicate hues of orange, red, and yellow. We’d make the short drive from St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church one week after mass to ensure the camera caught us at our Sunday best. I can still hear the hollow pop of acorns underneath children’s dress shoes.

Newtown is, as the media has grown fond of saying, “postcard perfect.” There is a beautifully understated, quintessentially New England quality to the place. There are no malls. No McDonald’s. Our local newspaper, the Bee, frequently runs high school sports as headline news. The stop lights start blinking at 10pm. The rhythm of life is quiet, yet brisk, and change tends to be resisted. Gaudiness is frowned upon, particularly by the old-timers, many of whom have lived here their whole lives and can remember when most of the streets will still dirt. Many houses predate the Revolutionary War, and the tracts of land their one-time owners once used as grazing fields for their livestock are still marked in many places by walls of grey and blue stones pulled from the rocky soil.

You may have heard some of these things mentioned, in passing of course, on the news.

The strangest things about seeing places and people I still feel such a strong connection to covered by media outlets around the world is not so much what they say but what they don’t, and cannot possibly mention. Newtown is a place where an unspeakably horrible tragedy occurred just a few days ago, but it is also the place where I made my first best friend. Its where I built forts in the woods. Where I learned to catch a baseball, ride a bike and drive a car. Its were I had my first kiss. I played soccer in Treadwell Park, just behind the podium where, at this very moment, a mob of reporters stands, waiting for answers we all know will never come. In Sandy Hook Center, where the Pootatuk River still slips and ripples steadily over its rocky basin, there is a tiny shop that used to sell coffee and pastries a few years back where I would spend many an afternoon, frequently lingering well on into the night. That place, in many ways, defined my last years living in Newtown. The other day I saw a reporter giving the most horrid types of updates “live on the scene.” From where she stood I could just make out the parking lot, sloping down from the road.

“Where were you,” I want to ask, “all those years? Don’t you see? You missed the soccer games. You missed the prom. You missed the Christmas tree lighting, graduations, and first days of school. You missed the Turkey Trot. You missed the first loves, the first heartbreaks, first jobs and school bus rides. You missed when Bagelman had to change its name. You missed the big debate over speed bumps, and class pictures on the hill.”

“Don’t you get it?” I want to yell through tears. “You think you’re on time but you’re not. You’re so, so, tragically late.”

I am hit by the enormity of the tragedy in my peaceful little town and it weighs my head down with the heaviest of sorrow. It squeezes tears out of my eyes, clogs my throat and curls my lips at the edges. It heaves sobs out of my chest. The tragedy that has befallen these families is as unspeakable in its gravity and horror as it is incomprehensible in its senselessness – what more can really be said about it? We will, I hope, never truly understand the anguish these parents face at the loss of their beloved children, even as we all mourn for them.

And yet I also feel great fear and anger that we, as a society, have entered into such a state of denial as to the wholly inadequate way we manage weapons such as those that were unleashed on those innocent children that, in spite of my deepest hopes, we will not make the changes that need to be made to significantly reduce the odds of something like this happening again. Even talking about the need for meaningful gun control after such a horrible event has become a faux pas – as if not talking about the issue and enabling a continuation of the status quo is not, in itself, a political act.

“Gun control is not the problem,” I have heard many times already, “it is our violent society. If only someone at the school had been armed.”

I find the suggestion that the proper response to school shootings is more guns in schools to be absurd to the point of not meriting further discussion.

I also defy anyone to tell me that Newtown Connecticut was, in any way, an unusually violent place – a place where something like this was somehow, in any respect other than the ready availability of guns, more likely to occur than in similar regions of the developed world, where firearms deaths occur at a fraction of the rate as in the US. The “violent society” excuse does us a disservice at two levels: one, it unfairly paints a picture of Americans as somehow inherently more prone to violence than other nationalities; and two, it describes the problem so broadly as to inhibit our ability to do anything about it when, in fact, the answers are right in front of our eyes.

America is not a comparatively violent place because of the people that live there, or the cultural baggage we carry. An even cursory glance at European history makes such an assertion highly questionable at best. These events, in spite of their frequency, continue to shock and horrify us to the core. We struggle in vain to comprehend what would motivate one of us to commit such an unspeakable act. There are various macro-level theories to explain what motivates people to turn to seemingly random acts of violence (inadequate mental health systems, a poor economy, feelings of identity loss in the wake of rapid globalization, etc.) which may do some good to explain overarching trends, but, of course, fail dreadfully on the benchmark of providing meaning to the individuals directly impacted.

What they do show, by their very existence, is that Americans are not alone in having deeply disturbed and potentially violent individuals living among them. There are random acts of violence in virtually every society today. The difference is the frequency, and lethality with which they occur. In that, the US is indeed an outlier when compared to other developed countries (please note that the countries in grey do not fall in the 8-10 range, but were not counted in this survey). We are also, not surprisingly, almost off the charts when in comes to gun ownership (88 guns per 100 people). Another article on the correlation of gun ownership to homicide in the US can be found here. Although correlation can never entirely prove causation, I believe that when we are talking about the number of guns and the rate of gun-related deaths in an otherwise stable environment, the evidence is difficult to refute, to say the least.

If we cannot come to grips with the need to regulate these weapons I believe we are damning ourselves to repeat history, as we have continued to do each time we allow the horror of these events to fade from our mind without making any meaningful changes. Only next time it will be another quiet, unassuming town to have its traditions and way of life upended, a different set of lives meaninglessly cut short, a different set of families left to mourn, and, perhaps, another guy sitting alone in his room far, far away from it all struggling to put his emotions into words for a silly travel blog.

My last day in Lucknow is Wednesday, after which I will be heading south to Hyderabad for a few weeks before moving to Delhi. My mind and heart, of course, are back home.

I’ll leave you with a quote I read recently from Fred (aka Mr.) Rogers that has offered me some peace in this difficult time:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things on 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.”

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