When the massacre at Sandy Hook occurred three years ago, I went through my own personal sea change. I woke up on the morning of Dec. 14, 2012, having no specific opinion about guns and the Second Amendment and background checks and mental health and all of the layers of a problem that seemed so important to other people. To me, the right to bear arms was fundamental, but hardly the most fundamental of the individual rights incident to our status as citizens. I didn’t have a problem with limitations on gun possession and couldn’t understand the almost-rabid reaction some Second Amendment purists had to any suggestion of gun control. On the other hand, I thought the type of person who blamed all of the deaths on easy access to firearms was naive and living in some progressive utopia where guns were animate, evil objects that shot themselves and we could end the killing if we just confiscated the weapons.
And then I spent a day, one and a half weeks before Christmas, transfixed before the television screen as the most horrific story I had ever seen unfolded before my disbelieving eyes: Twenty first-graders and six of their teachers were murdered in cold blood by a mentally deranged teenager with a military style arsenal.
As I watched, the horror increased like a low flame that first flickers and then eats oxygen to become larger, hotter and then finally an inferno. That inferno began to burn in my head, as I kept repeating to myself “First-graders murdered, their teachers massacred trying to protect them.” To this day, I cannot write the words without breaking down in tears.
And then the parade of faces, the sweet gap-toothed smiles and the wide eyes and the off-center parts and the jagged bangs, the freckles and the pug noses and the heartbreaking pain of promises, promises of a future, shattered. I saw my nephew in those faces, a boy who carries my hopes and expectations and immense love with him on his shoulders (though he doesn’t know it) into his own classroom every morning. Today he is 7, the age of those little martyred ones. Then, he was 4 and all I wanted to do was run home and hold him tightly and block out the idea that children could be shot point blank and ripped from the world they’d only begun to explore.
Unlike Sept. 11, which filled me with pain and anger and a sense of insecurity that remains to this day in the deepest part of my consciousness but did not make me question the existence of God, Sandy Hook made me wonder what kind of deity allows an evil boy with a diseased mind to shatter 26 lives and send the horrific ripples out among parents and siblings and spouses and children and friends. Perhaps it was simply that 9/11 was so big and the losses so vast and the devastation so universal that I didn’t feel it personally. I remember trying to reach my brother Michael, who in those days lived and worked in lower Manhattan. When I finally made contact, I breathed with relief that seemed to empty my lungs. But the catastrophe of 9/11 was too big for me to fully take in, like Pearl Harbor.
Sandy Hook, for some reason, was much more personal. To this day I cannot shake the photos of those babies from my mind, class photos that captured these tiny miracles at the moment of their first blossoming. Is there anything more painful than looking at the photo of a smiling child, days and weeks and years after that child’s sudden death? I can’t think of anything, and I have never lost a son or daughter. But you don’t need to have experienced that greatest tragedy in life to understand what it takes from you, sucks out of your marrow.
And that is why I understand why President Obama wept this week when he talked about the victims of Sandy Hook. It is why I believe those tears were real and not conjured for a photo-op to advance a lame duck political agenda. It is why I know that this most unemotional of men broke down, even briefly, in front of the cameras. And it is why I was angered by the reaction from friends and fellow travelers on the conservative side who ridiculed him, or challenged the authenticity of his feelings, or piled on with analogies of other deaths Obama had failed to sufficiently mourn.
I read social media posts telling me that I was a naive fool to think that a man who presumably had no concern for the family of border agent Brian Terry could genuinely care about dead 7-year-olds. I was told that a man who allowed one of his ambassadors to be massacred in cold blood by jihadists and did not cry over his shed blood, could not empathize with the parents of Sandy Hook. I was warned not to fall for the dog and pony show served up for the anti-gun crowd.
Finally, I was bombarded with legal treatises as to why the president’s executive orders addressing gun control were either (1) unconstitutional (2) unworkable or (3) unnecessary because they duplicated much of what was already written into existing legislation.
I happen to agree that the executive orders will probably not hold up if challenged in a court of law, primarily because they invade the jurisdiction of Congress. But then again, I was wrong about the viability of his immigration initiatives last year, which are tied up in litigation, so I’m not an expert on the likely outcome for these new executive orders.
But that’s not what bothers me the most. People can take issue with the legality of an act. If they are running for office, like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz (who has a pen with an eraser), they can make statements about repealing those initiatives and make the base happy.
That’s politics, and that’s fine.
What bothers me the most are the people who smugly come out and say that Obama didn’t really mean it when he was crying about those dead babies, or that he should have cried for others too.
This is not a zero sum game. And frankly, there is something special — horrifically so — about murdered 7-year-olds or Amish school girls lined up and massacred by a deranged delivery man. Anyone who doesn’t cry about them is not human. Barack Obama, for whatever flaws he possesses (and I think he is greatly flawed,) is human. I believe his tears were genuine.
And suggesting otherwise says more about his critics than it does about him.
Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Readers may send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.