I'm very wary of throwing around absolutes when it comes to trying to predict how the public will react and continue to react in the wake of a tragedy. Many of us, myself included, were sure that 9/11 had so pummeled the American psyche and roused us from our sense of complacent slumber that nothing would be the same again for a very long time; indeed, we heard so much about the "new normal" in the weeks and months following the attack that it became an article of faith.
But in the end, while some admittedly used the violence wrought upon us to assert their political authority and advance their obscene causes, turning us into a nation in fear because it greatly benefited them, our popular culture eventually returned to its original shape -- as ridiculous and enthralled with the trivial as it ever was, if not more so.
It's human nature. We adapt. We recover. We forget. It's how we deal with suffering, no matter how great.
Because of this phenomenon, I've been reluctant to believe that the impact of what happened last Friday in Newtown, Connecticut can be one that lasts long enough to truly change us as a nation. The cynicism center of my brain, which for most of my life has controlled the dominant feature of my personality, says that there's simply no way that any single event can be a catalyst for the kind of seismic shift that would realign us as a society at our very core. It just doesn't seem possible, not when you understand and fully appreciate what it means to be an American in the year 2012.
But then I think about the event. I think about this event.
Over the past few days, I've spent a lot of time placing the murder of 26 people, including 20 children, at Sandy Hook Elementary school not alongside other mass shootings, but, again, in the company of 9/11. The attack that devastated us as a people on that morning eleven years ago is, at least on a personal level, the only other comparable national tragedy that I've seen in my lifetime. And if I'm honest -- this one is worse. Far worse.
I covered 9/11 from the ground in New York City, and while it was an overwhelming, gut-wrenching and often heartbreaking experience, I'm not sure it ever had the visceral, emotionally shattering impact on me that this shooting has. It has to do with the fact that at least I could make 9/11 make sense, as strange as that sounds; I knew why we were attacked and grasped the twisted logic in the minds of the murderers, killers from far away who'd come from outside to our shores to exact a terrifying but ultimately misguided revenge on innocent people. It was so horrific as an act of war that it was almost surreal, and in the end I, like everyone else, knew who was to blame -- and there was unity in our shared defiance and hope in our spirit to overcome.
This is different, though. This is something that can't be explained. That can't be rationalized. That can't even be temporarily salved with gallows humor or buried under distraction. That's because this is us -- this cuts to the soul of who we are. This challenges the notion that we're a decent people, that the miracle of goodness survives in us as a country. No one declared war on us this time because this time we're at war with ourselves. We allowed ourselves to become this thing. But now we know that it can't continue. We can't go on this way.
And so we're seeing something I'm not sure I ever thought possible, and while I'm again hesitant to put too much faith in the fortitude of a sentiment that's the result of an overpowering emotional reaction, I'm still stunned by it and want desperately to believe in it. Even some of the most passionate defenders of the cultural and political status quo -- those for whom arguing their intransigent point-of-view has become a contact sport -- are raising their voices with the understanding that something must change. The names and faces of 20 innocent children and the six people who tried to save their lives provide a devastating clarion call for it. Their memories are owed it.
Maybe this will finally be the event that changes us -- that shames and sidelines the angry, the fearful, the petty and the apathetic and that empowers and inspires a cultural uprising. A move toward something better.
If it doesn't, I don't know what can or will. Because I can't imagine anything worse than this.