Sunday, December 15, 2013

We have Learned Lessons From Newtown...But Have We Taken Them to Heart ?

Hundreds gathered at Washington's National Cathedral to remember those who lost their lives at Sandy Hook Elementary School

 Monsignor Bob Weiss,  of Newtown's Catholic church  says the candles, marking prayers for the dead, have been replaced twice since last weekend. It is a time of sad reflection and remembering in the small town. People stop on the street to hug each other and chat quietly for a moment. Many churches have been conducting memorial services and are filled to the last pew.
No-one here can forget what happened on 14 December 2012, but the actual anniversary carries even greater poignancy. "Its deepens my faith," the Monsignor says. "I have never questioned my faith in God through this, but I have questioned my faith in humanity."   

The priest is recalling not just the massacre, but the hoax bomb calls and the sick graffiti that followed.  There is a weight upon him. Conducting the funeral services for eight murdered children, comforting the bereaved for a year, has taken a toll. "If these children don't change something in this world then we are in big trouble," he says; although one is tempted to interject, 'We are already in big trouble'.
"We've become so desensitized to violence , so unfortunately children are growing up in what our Holy Father calls a 'culture of death'."
He says as time passes he can remember more about what happened a year ago. The unwelcome memories keep him awake at night. He often thinks about walking up to the school that day, glass crunching underfoot. He says that this is a town where people come to get away from it all, so he has even more respect for those who have stayed and had the courage to stand up and tell the world how it must change.
"I do think people are trying to make sense of it, but there is no way to make sense of it," he said. "I personally believe that we could have all the legislation we want but until people change in their hearts and start respecting each other, nothing is going to change."

Elizabeth Esty (second from right) consoled the brother of Victoria Soto, who was killed in the mass shooting in Newtown, on Washington DC on 18 September
Elizabeth Esty consoled families of the victims

Just a month before the tragedy Elizabeth Esty had been elected to Congress for the Democrats, representing Connecticut's 5th district. She was in Boston, in an induction course for the new job, when she got the call from Newtown.  The next week was spent in the town's firehouse, comforting the grieving families.

She recalls "unimaginable pain".  She sat with a group of young children and read them stories on the 14th. It was her "act of kindness" to mark the anniversary. The watchword  of the anniversary was for each person, far and near, to perform an act of kindness for someone, no matter how large or small.

But she is also firm there must be restrictions on guns. So far, each proposal has been blocked by Congress. But she sees some change.
"It's happened in some states. Here in Connecticut, in New York, in Colorado," she said. " Frankly we are seeing the effect of gridlock in Washington. But we are not giving up. We just can't give up."
Does she blame the political determination to block the president's proposal, or it is a genuine worry about the restrictions?
"It is a mix. In part it is the extraordinary historic power of the National Rifle Association which has been able to defeat politicians in the past, and people are afraid, afraid they may be targeted," she said.
"My message to them is 'stand up for your constituents who overwhelmingly support background checks on weapons'.
"Everyone agrees criminals should not have access to weapons, the mentally ill should not have access to weapons. These should not be partisan issues."

Directly after the tragedy President Obama called for the country to ask some "hard questions", and 33 days after the shooting he came up with a list of specific proposals. Background checks. A ban on assault rifles. A ban on high capacity magazines. All have been rejected by Congress.

In one sense, it is all of a piece with the running theme of the president's second term - pushing for well intended proposals which political common sense should tell him are still, at present, beyond his reach.  Some think this is a lack of political finesse on the Hill and misplaced confidence in the power of his own rhetoric. Maybe. Others think there is a strong racial undercurrent which throws up roadblocks to his every proposal.
 Mr Obama is best as a campaigner, and is a strong believer that political achievements take time and the public's mood also changes with time. That is certainly true. Back in January he said: "I will put everything I've got into this - but I tell you, the only way we can change is if the American people demand it.
"And by the way, that doesn't just mean from certain parts of the country. We're going to need voices in those areas and those congressional districts where the tradition of gun ownership is strong to speak up and to say this is important."
After the Naval Yard shooting in Washington in September, he said: "It may not happen tomorrow and it may not happen next week and it may not happen next month, but it will happen because it's the change we need."

That is what Po Murray believes too. She's the vice chair of the Newtown Action Alliance and thinks the killings were a defining, watershed moment. And just as attitudes to drunken driving or smoking have changed over time, so will people's relationship to guns.
"The 'Alliance' is an important word in our name," she said. "We are working with any and all groups from across the nation who are working to reduce gun violence.
"Right now we have about 160 organizations. We have coalesced together on the idea of background checks, so all gun purchases require background checks."
"It represents about 18 million supporters and we are going to grow and it's a counter movement to the corporate gun lobby."

This is going to get more political, not less, as next year's elections approach. I hope the Newtown tragedy is on everyone's mind today. I wish they could see it as the turning point that had to come, because it takes something very big to change the course of human history. Let the tragedy stand for something other than a madman's rampage. Allow it to be a beacon of enlightenment.

Reference material from Mark Mardell

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