Reflections on the Unimaginable

After each mass slaughter usually inflicted by some high-powered assault rifle in the hands of a mentally unstable individual Americans search for some explanation, some way to make sense of the madness. That was especially true of the latest massacre of children in Connecticut, writes Michael Winship.

By Michael Winship

We’re spending a holiday season weekend at the home of friends in a small Connecticut town just a few miles up the road from Newtown.

Returning from the local store on Saturday, our friend Emily tells us that the talk there is of nothing but the killings; every customer seems to know at least one of the families devastated by the volleys of gunshots. The headline on the front page of The Danbury News-Timesis the single word, “Shattered,” in enormous type.

Adam Lanza, identified by police as the killer in the Newtown, Connecticut, grade school massacre who also took his own life.

At The Atlantic website, I read a piece by Edward Small, a reporter who attended the school in Newtown when he was a kid and I remember my own elementary school in a small town in upstate New York. In those days, the only emergency drills we ever had were the duck-and-cover alerts that sent us into the hallways or under our desks during the depths of Cold War hysteria; the only violence was getting shoved from behind by a bully, books and binder flying.

An attack like this new deadly assault would have been unimaginable at my school, not unimaginable like it was in Newtown until Friday but unimaginable, period — simply because I truly believe that back then it never would have happened.

There were plenty of guns around; deer hunters abounded and as baby boomers many of our fathers had served during World War II and returned home with firearms they kept hidden away.

(Mine didn’t have a gun but a small, ceremonial German dagger in a faux-ivory scabbard. He must have bought or traded for it. Dad was a pharmacist and had been a medical supply officer in the Army that dagger certainly wasn’t acquired in hand-to-hand combat).

Yes, there were problems and issues galore but no 24-hour news cycle battering viewers with the latest fresh bloodlettings, no video games inuring the young to bullets, bombs and psychosis, no Internet. I always wonder how those two killers of In Cold Blood fame found each other; now they would have met via Facebook.

Make no mistake, I’m as big an Internet and all-news-all-the-time aficionado as the next guy and I know I sound like the cranky old curmudgeon I’m rapidly becoming but it was different then.

Today, there’s almost one privately owned firearm for every person in America, more than any other nation. We have the highest rate of gun-related homicide in the developed world, almost 20 times that of 22 other “rich” countries.

There have been an estimated 31 school shootings in the United States since Columbine in 1999. As many as 100 bullets were fired in Newtown; last year, a total of 85 were fired at people by the police in all of Germany and 49 of them were warning shots. We will hear all these and other statistics in the days ahead and in a week or so they will fade until the next time. Unless this time we stand up and say no.

In his Atlantic article Edward Small wrote, “I spent all day reading the headlines and the body counts, but part of me is still waiting for the grand reveal that none of this really happened because how could any of it have really happened? How could the elementary school where I wrote my first story and got in trouble for calling Ross Perot a butthead also be the site of the nation’s second-deadliest school shooting?

“I can’t reconcile the memories I have of Sandy Hook School with the events of today. They simply aren’t the same place.”

I read the stories, too, and watch the never-ending TV “updates” that rarely add anything to what little we know. Then another story catches my eye from a newspaper in Michigan about two little boys in a small town, smaller than Newtown, smaller than my hometown, who went looking for crayfish in a nearby stream, the way little boys do, and found what they thought was an unusual rock. It turned out to be an ancient bone from a mastodon, some 13,000-14,000 years old.

“This has been a wonderful experience,” one of their mothers told the paper. “He’s been struggling in school and this has helped him with self-confidence and inspired him to learn more about science.”

I remember how we played and explored when we were young; how we found fossils, too, and sometimes an arrowhead, and I think of all those little kids now dead in Connecticut who will no longer have the chance to make discoveries like those, never imagine, never explore, never be inspired, never get older.

I put down the newspapers, turn off the TV and computer. Shattered.

Michael Winship, a native of Canandaigua, NY, is senior writer of the public television series Moyers & Company, and senior writing fellow at the non-partisan think tank Demos. For more, go to

11 comments for “Reflections on the Unimaginable

  1. elmerfudzie
    December 28, 2012 at 21:48

    When the devil enters a person, what can be done? Name the man who could have stopped Judas on his way to betray Jesus.

  2. starviego
    December 20, 2012 at 04:13

    Why don’t they ever show us cute school pics of all those kids that are being blasted apart in our drone attacks?

  3. starviego
    December 20, 2012 at 04:11

    And if guns are bad, why is the government, at all levels, armed to the teeth? Who are those guns pointed at? We, the People. When they prevent us from defending ourselves, that’s when the fun is really going to start.

  4. starviego
    December 20, 2012 at 04:08

    “We have the highest rate of gun-related homicide in the developed world”

    What about the ‘undeveloped world?’ Don’t they count? Well if they did, we’d look pretty damn good. For example Mexico, where guns are illegal, has a much greater gun violence problem. And most of the gun violence here is due to violence in the black and hispanic community. Yes, their lives count too, but their gun violence does not affect most of the majority white population, who you are obviously trying to scare.

  5. kristin
    December 19, 2012 at 22:43

    Why is it whenever a news outlet shows a photo of the shooter, it’s always a creepy, blurry, or darkened image doctored up to make them appear sinister, or disturbed?? This kid was a teen, why not show his “normal” facebook or iphone type photos I’m sure he had scads of. Oh.. sorry forgot about the hearts n minds thing, see, you MUST make him appear monstrous. All part of the psychopolitic.

  6. Charles Craig
    December 19, 2012 at 02:16

    The “a slaughter-usually inflicted by some high power assault rifle’ is untrue. Roughly half of the mass slaughters have been accomplished by someone using a handgun. Vide, VaTec, Fort Hood, etc. I predict some feel-good legislation which ends with no discernible effect on the problem.

  7. Bill Medellin
    December 18, 2012 at 15:42

    President Truman gave the go-ahead to drop the A bomb on two Japanese cities…
    10’s of thousands of little children were killed, incinerated, maimed. In ‘Nam where I was…hundreds, if not thousands of little children burned by naplam, maimed by US airstrikes, shelling by Army artillery, much the same in Iraq and Afghanistan except napalming, Senators Collins, Graham, McCain in Libya pimping for Military Industrial Empire, munitions industry, selling guns to Gahdaffi circa 2004; NRA political wing of the Military Industrial Empire through an army of lobbyists buying congressmen and Senators, the “best congress that money can buy” (book by Greg Palast, then of the Economist), 31 senators (30 Republicans) turning down requests to appear on Sundays talk shows same for reps of NRA…all cowards! I have run many things together but
    it serves the purpose of where we’ve been and where we are now. Can this once wonderful country be saved? Dear God, please!!!!!

  8. Hillary
    December 17, 2012 at 22:28

    Tragic and we all suffer with them.

    Unfortunately this and worse tragedies are a common occurrence in Iraq ,Afghanistan ,Syria etc.

    If only , if only — but we in the West don’t seem to care about the tragedies “over there”.

  9. rosemerry
    December 17, 2012 at 18:57

    The last bit sheds an interesting light on the other aspect of US exceptionalism- the deliberate ignorance of scientific evidence.
    How could those fossils be found when the earth is only 6000 years old???

  10. Matt Palmer
    December 17, 2012 at 18:36

    Life has no value in the U.S. Only the very wealthy matter. All the killing will go “on and on” (RFK). Your life here is worth no more than the financial debts you owe. Life here “…doesn’t mean shit” (Bud). The worst of us are rewarded the most. Police, Border guards, the average person, they are all stupid and violent (and trained that way) and they love it. It is not hyperbolic to say that the U.S. is the greatest threat to the rest of the world (itself anyway) and, like the Nazi’s (yes), the rest of the world must stop this de-evolutionary, corporate, corporate-personhood induced madness. These weird, loner, crazy, mixed up killers all realize that something is not right outside of their isolated selves. It would be better and more fair if these mad killer’s would direct their bullets in a reverse trickle-down and massacre the likes of the Kock brothers and all the rest of the billionaires instead of each other. It’s white-on-white crime! But really it is the same-class-on-class crime. Maybe not. But obviously something is wrong in this Walmart parking lot nation, and it is not a lack of prayer. Good luck, everyone.

  11. Windworth
    December 17, 2012 at 18:21

    Circa December 17, 2012. Note: SELECTIVE OUTRAGE IN AMERICA >>>>>Unexploded Ordnance Kills 10 Afghan Children Ten Afghan girls between the ages of 9 and 13 were killed, …. others wounded in critical condition. Years of war have made Afghanistan one of the most heavily land-mined countries in the world. Unexploded US bombs will continue to kill and maim more innocent Afghanistan children for years, probably decades, to come. The deaths. (and future deaths of children), were not because of a single troubled man but by the USA’s culture of psychopathic leaders embraced widely by Americans. Meanwhile The great American liberal websites will per usual cry barely more then a pro forma peep if any. No: Theses websites cannot really be bothered. They have a more insidious agenda to hype.
    Footnote: See no posturing tears for these little girls by the forever shameless presidents of the USA past and present.

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