The burials have already begun, up there in Connecticut. Cheeky young football fan Jack Pinto and rambunctious, bright-eyed Noah Pozner both went to their graves under a leaden December sky, a week before Christmas Eve, that most magical of nights. They were six years old, both of them — absurdly, maddeningly young to be laid out in caskets like their ancestors and lowered permanently into the ground. Their eighteen schoolmates, also dead, would be following soon, along with the six brave women who tried to protect them. Twenty-six homes in this leafy corner of New England would be desolate beyond consolation this Christmas.
Make that a hundred million homes, because an entire nation has been numbed and traumatized by the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. We won’t know a fraction of the anguish those Newtown parents are feeling now as they bury those innocent sprites and confront those silent bedrooms, but we’re anguished all the same.
Innocence lost. It’s one of the eternal themes threading its way through world literature, and we Americans have spoken about it before. Pundits lamented our loss of innocence after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. In fact, we had already been losing it for decades.
Let me count the ways: Rock. Rap. Blood-spattered movies. Trash TV. Escalating public profanity. Deliberately repellent art. The damnable cult of “cool.” Eviction of religion (and with it, the teaching of morality) from our public schools. The rise of religious fanaticism. Relentless irony in comedy and conversation (why are we afraid to be sincere?). Mockery of simple, good-hearted squareness. Veneration of antiheroes. The rise of divorce and the fracturing of families.
The list goes on… The loss of mutual loyalty between employers and employees. The decline of community spirit. (“Communities” are now made up of people who look like us, vote like us, worship like us, have sex like us.) The ongoing decay of our cities. The ownership of elected representatives by powerful moneyed interests. The slow and sinister transmutation of heartfelt patriotism into belligerent “exceptionalism.” The ruthless pursuit of unlimited wealth at the top of society — coupled with the abandonment of personal responsibility at the bottom. The brutal ugliness of so many toys and video games marketed to American boys. Mass shootings of innocent people. In short, we’re a mess.
Innocence lost. When I was a boy, back in the faded golden light of the Eisenhower and Kennedy years, we were brought up to emulate people of worth and character: Washington, Lincoln, Clara Barton, Helen Keller, Lou Gehrig, George Washington Carver. These were our models, not the pop star du jour. Our favorite TV hosts promoted solid values along with the fun. I remember them fondly: Buffalo Bob Smith, Captain Kangaroo, Shari Lewis and a galaxy of kindly, unsung local personalities who influenced us more than they ever supposed.
We knew our neighbors, walked to school without fear, swapped baseball cards, played freely and joyously with our friends (no pre-arranged, parent-supervised play dates for us!). The nerdier boys among us (and nerds were probably a majority in those days) found quiet joy in stamp-collecting, model-building, Monopoly, or peering at the moon through rickety telescopes.
Such innocent pursuits seem almost comical now, but they nourished and satisfied us. By contrast, too many of today’s socially marginalized boys seem to require body piercings, “goth” garb, homicidal video games and semi-automatic weapons. The dark side calls to them, and they’ve become too deadened and morally feckless to resist its charms. Eventually, as some of them slowly lose their sanity and their attachment to the human community, the bloody slaughter of innocents begins to gain a weird, wild appeal.
The gun control debate is coming to a head now, accompanied by puffy clouds of hot verbiage. And yet the solution is simpler than the talking heads would lead us to think. Here it is: we need to preserve our right to bear arms, and we need to ban semi-automatic weapons. And yes, that goes for those evil cartridges, too. Especially the cartridges, because we can’t do anything about the millions of assault weapons already in circulation. End of story. No compromise. No exceptions.
I’ve never been a hunter — and I feel for the hunter’s inoffensive victims — but I can understand the excitement of the chase. I can even understand the need to keep an ordinary gun handy for self-defense. What I will never understand is the need for any sane person to collect weapons expressly designed to mow down dozens of human beings with minimal effort.
Who in their right mind would embrace semi-automatic weapons? Only gun dealers, the NRA and its paid shills (including our Congressmen), rigid Second Amendment fundamentalists and the half-demented survivalists who look forward to the day when they can blast the government troops who invade their homesteads. But it’s enough.
Cars kill thousands more people each year, the pro-gun pundits are fond of reminding us. Should we ban them? They miss the point: cars have multiple uses and benefits aside from smashing into hapless drivers and pedestrians. By contrast, the only purpose of a semi-automatic weapon is to kill multiple people with alarming efficiency. You don’t need an assault rifle to gun down an intruder in your home or business. You don’t even need one to stop a lunatic armed with assault weapons. A single well-aimed bullet would do the trick. Better yet, don’t give the lunatic access to assault weapons. Give him proper psychiatric care instead.
We need to reclaim our innocence, and we need to reclaim it now. An impossible task, you say? Too late, you insist? Nonsense. It won’t be easy to stuff all those evils back into the bag. In fact, it will take a heroic effort — but that’s precisely why it appeals to me.
How do we recover our cultural sanity without winding back the clock to the 1950s? Start with the children.
Back when my son was in kindergarten and first grade, I’d volunteer one morning each week to help the teachers and assist the little folks with their reading skills. I fell in love with those kids. I was looking at the human animal in its purest and most charming state: mirthful and mischievous, joyously uninhibited, sweet and trusting and full of wonder… old enough to make amazingly astute observations, but still too young to have been corrupted by the deadly influences of our culture.
A six-year-old child today is a timeless representative of our species, still as perfect and unsullied as the children of ancient Athens or Victorian England. If we can rescue a single generation of children from shabby values… if we can nurture them and guide them and still let them be their endearingly anarchic selves… maybe we can start to reverse the cultural rot that’s eating away at us today.
The bright and heartbreakingly lovable faces of the twenty juvenile Newtown victims, broadcast endlessly over the media in recent days, filled me with sadness but also with hope. I’m sure many of us feel as if we’ve come to know those children, and we’ll never forget them. The spark of life in their young eyes will remain with us, will never be extinguished, and will help us understand how human nature at its purest and best can ultimately conquer all manner of evil.