I am not sure there are any larger lessons to learn from the shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012. Mental illness isn’t the answer: Millions of Americans suffer from such maladies, few become shooters. The over-abundance of firearms isn’t the the answer: By that standard, we’d all be dead several times over, given the ubiquity of weapons in our gun-crazed culture. And reference to evil doesn’t do the trick; it’s a labeling exercise, adding nothing but a sense of closure to our understanding of the world.
Still, the Newtown shootings require explanation, even if we can’t explain them. The slaughter of 20 children at school shocks, and the loss of six adults with the children at the school remains a source of sorrow, as does the murder of Adam Lanza’s mother in her bed that horrible morning. And let’s not forget Adam Lanza, a lost child himself, who seemed to tire of the slaughter midstream, and simply turned a weapon on himself.
As the Newtown shootings took place, I was in a courtroom on the other side of the state, giving a closing argument in another shooting case. In my case, a young black male shot another in the head in a dispute over nothing in particular. When we left the courthouse for lunch, news of the Newtown shootings was on the street. Of course, I was shocked, and troubled, but I also wondered where the outrage was over another senseless shooting in an inner city.
Matthew Lysiak’s Newtown: An American Tragedy (Gallery Books: New York, 2013) just hit the stands. There was no question that I would read it. I spotted it while Christmas shopping. Upon seeing it, my first thought was “What took so long?” Every catastrophe spawns an almost instantaneous literature.
Lysiak is a journalist who embedded himself in Newtown in the weeks immediately following the shooting. Nothing he wrote surprised me. Yet, I could not put the book down. Cynic though I am after decades of seeing sorrow in courtrooms, the book made me cry. He writes in detail of teachers comforting terrified students, and of lawmen arriving on the scene only to be undone by what they saw.
The book was published just after the release of a report on the shootings by the Danbury State’s Attorney’s Office, another document I read with something like a sense of dark duty. The state’s attorney’s report told me nothing about the shooter, Adam Lanza. Lysiak writes in great detail about his emotional struggles through a short life, and how his mother struggled to get him the care he needed. Those who think a better method of detecting troubled kids might have prevented the shootings will be disabused of that notion: Adam Lanza was a storm cloud long on the horizon. School officials had for years made special effort to keep a helping eye out for him.
And still he slipped through the cracks. His mother sought care and help, and could not find it. In the months before the shooting, he became more isolated, spending days, weeks, and months holed up in the family home, obsessively playing violent video games and researching mass shootings. Lysiak suggests he might have been shooting for the record books in his case, yielding the terrifying prospect that somewhere, even as you read this, a lone wolf broods in some secret lair, trying to conceive a shooting even more deadly, more spectacular, than Lanza’s.
The book’s most surprising conclusion is an obvious one: Violent crime in the United States is decreasing, and has been for the past two decades, yet the incidence of mass shootings is increasing. How to explain that paradox?
Lysiak has no answers. His was simply the task to bear witness. He provides brief snapshots of the lives lost at Sandy Hook. It is difficult reading -- so much life lost, and so much sorrow thereafter.
I’m not sorry I read the book, even if I do feel in part like a driver slowing to look at some horrible highway accident. Newtown was terrifying. What transfixes about this story is the knowledge that there will another, and there is little we can do to stop it.