but until now none of them was important.” – The Simpsons
In the immediate aftermath of the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton CT, the country was unified in mourning. A seemingly local incident was viewed as a national tragedy, one which prompted much soul searching though not surprisingly little by way of answers. A common refrain I saw online was “there are no words” or “there is no answer – for indeed, who would dare offer any rationale justifying the murder of 20 children and 6 teachers.
In processing my own thoughts, there was one Talmudic passage which I found hard to ignore. B. Shabbat 33b records the following opinion:
When there are righteous men in a generation, they are taken for the sins of the generation. When there are no righteous in a generation, school children are taken for the generation.
As if the idea of vicarious atonement – that someone is punished to absolve others of their sins – is not theologically difficult itself, to imply that the blood of presumably innocent school children serve as some form of sacrifice for the benefit of the rest of the world is, at the very least, distasteful. And following an actual massacre of children, such an assertion would seem to be especially cruel. But after witnessing America’s reaction to the Sandy Hook shootings, it occurred to me that there may be some other truth to the Talmudic statement.
Consider for a moment just how many murders, or violent acts are committed worldwide with minimal coverage, let alone outrage. According to FBI statistics for US crime, there were 13,913 murders in 2011 and 14,103 murders in 2010, yet only a small percentage warranted national news coverage. Worldwide murders are obviousl higher depending on region, including violence against children. According to a 2008 World Health Organization report, approximately 120,000 children worldwide are treated for violence – which would exclude the number of incidents for which children are not treated – and yet relatively few of these incidents warrant our attention. In China school stabbings have been a shockingly frequent occurrence but they barely make the news in the US.
The sad reality is that murders are not uncommon in the world, nor are murders against children, and yet we as a nation remain unfazed. We can easily ignore the deaths of those in other countries because they’re not one of us. We excuse horrific acts of terror because after all they are part of a justified ideological struggle and one side or the other must deserve it somehow. The same is true for local gang violence, where the poor life choices of individuals naturally lead to their own demise.
For so many murders and acts of violence, we find ways to excuse or understand the actions such that we do not have to endure the pain of loss or human suffering. Consider the Sandy Hook shootings themselves. The six teachers who were killed were rightly praised as heroes, though I suspect they would not have received the honor they deserved had children not been included as victims. Furthermore, there was little sympathy for Nancy Lanza, the shooter’s mother and a victim in her own right, with one paper vilifying her saying “she created a monster.”
But when children are targeted, or more specifically our children are targeted, we lose all excuses. We cannot say that tragedies only happen “over there” in lawless countries when a shooting occurs in our own backyard. We cannot console ourselves as we do with adult murders that young children lived full lives. And with so many children being killed we cannot impose familiar narratives of ideology or racism which would otherwise explain or justify their senseless deaths.
For a few days this country overcame its apathy and jadedness and was unified in its sharing the morning of the needless loss of human life. Perhaps the sin of our generation is that it took the murders of 20 children to do so.