Newtown’s community struggles to understand one of its own
This column was originally published in the Wall Street Journal.
NEWTOWN, CONNECTICUT – The word “community” is overused. It is even the title of a television sitcom. But in the context of Newtown – the Connecticut town of 27,000 that I’ve known as home since 1969 – it is authentic. Yet from within our midst came Adam Lanza, now a murderer of 20 innocent local children, six of their dedicated teachers, and his own mother.
Today the world is focused on our heretofore-bucolic slice of America. As the international media’s satellite dishes sprout and their choppers descend to dissect the shooting and the shooter, Newtown is mostly presented as either an affluent suburb of New York or a picture-perfect New England hamlet with old-timey colonial houses, horse farms and a historic Main Street.
Neither characterization does it justice. To live here is to know why, after two decades of global wandering, I returned eight years ago to raise my family.
I never expected to come back to Newtown. But as my two boys – born in Milan and London – began their schooling, it became obvious that of all the places I could choose to live, none was better. My parents would be nearby, and I knew the quality of the schools, with their committed teachers and involved parents, because both my brother and I attended them from K-12. Even more than all that, it was Newtown’s sense of being one town – albeit encompassing many differences- that made it so unlike any of the other places I had lived.
Yes, it is also charming. Take a stroll on Main Street from the iconic flagpole that marks the spiritual center of town, as hundreds of journalists will in the days ahead and as every politician does during the Labor Day parade. There is the Newtown Meeting House, a church first constructed in 1720 and best known for the weather vane on its steeple.
According to a tale that is almost certainly apocryphal – and may never seem quite the same again – French troops under Gen. Rochambeau shot the rooster, now the town symbol, while quartered down the street in Ram’s Pasture in 1781. That’s the field where, every Thanksgiving morning, there is a spontaneous game of flag football. Now it is a place of vigil.
On Halloween, Newtown’s children converge on its sidewalks, placed as they are at a safe distance from the road. They trick-or-treat from colonial to colonial, most of which are gamely decked out in all manner of spookiness. Knowing that Main Street’s homeowners have opened their doors to their children and kept them off the more darkened, rural streets of the town, residents contribute generously to a candy bank at the local Big Y and Caraluzzi’s supermarkets.
Further along Main Street, just beyond the old general store serving Flagpole sandwiches and the mutually owned Newtown Savings Bank, stands the Edmond Town Hall cinema. Twice every evening, except on Thursdays, this municipally run institution shows movies—nothing fancy, usually out-of-date—for $2. The cinema, site of many first dates and perhaps even first kisses, has been a haven for generations of parents, including my own, giving their kids an early glimpse of independence.
Onward, up the street, is the Honan Funeral Home. Nothing in its history has prepared Dan Honan for the week of grieving that approaches. I first entered the place as a teenager after four of my contemporaries were killed in a car crash preceded by a police chase. I didn’t sleep for weeks. I wondered then how such a horrific thing could happen in my town. And now something far worse has occurred, something beyond what any community can possibly understand.
We still don’t know all the facts of Friday’s killings. And for now the priority is to support those most directly affected. What we do know is that, from now on, when my children tell people they hail from Newtown, there will be immediate recognition, even perhaps a stigma. The times over the past 45 years that I had to correct acquaintances (“No, it’s Newtown, not Newton”) won’t be repeated, thanks to one of our own. The 20-year-old Lanza had attended the town’s public schools, batted on its sports fields, and played with its children.
There can be no explanation for his behavior, no motive. We can only ask questions. How did Lanza have access to an arsenal of weapons at home? Did his mother seek help for him? If he had changed for the worse, were his peers or neighbors aware? Could they, or we, have done more to involve him in our community? Did the law, and our Constitution, make his massacre easier to carry out?
In the end, we may arrive at answers that help make it less likely that tragedies like Newtown’s will recur. That won’t ever heal the suffering of the victims’ families. Nor will it salve the collective grief that I know my neighbors, my children, my wife and I are grappling with. Dealing with that will require us to recognize Adam Lanza as one of us, and explore what that means for each of us in Newtown. It will be painful. At least we can be confident our community will pull together.
PHOTO: A woman wrapped in a Red Cross blanket holds a candle outside Newtown High School where U.S. President Barack Obama was speaking at a vigil for families of victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut December 16, 2012. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque