Before this week I, like most people in the world, had never heard of Newtown, Connecticut The lives of the teachers, students and parents of Sandy Hook Elementary School had no special significance beyond their immediate family circles. I wish that were still the case.
I imagine that the atmosphere at Sandy Hook during the final lead up to the Christmas holidays was the same mix of excitement, enthusiasm and anticipation as in schools all over the world. Anyone who has worked in schools would have felt at home.
No more. Henceforth, the name ‘Sandy Hook’ will be a short-hand prompt for despair and outrage. Each of us will feel the guilty conflict between our horror at the realisation that it could so easily have happened in our own community, and an awful feeling of guilty thankfulness that it did not.
When faced with a natural disaster such as famine, flooding or earthquake, we know how to respond: we try to mobilise resources and send help; we contribute to the Red Cross; we hold collections for blankets, food, clothing, or simply money. But this week there is no help we can send; there is no outside support we can offer. There is simply a school community that has been devastated because of a personal narrative that turned violent, and in which they have played no part except that of victims.
However, though we cannot offer help, we are not helpless.
We have been told that right now is not the time to debate the issue of gun control, and it is a safe assumption that the gun lobby will soon move into high gear to argue that the easy availability of firearms had no direct bearing on this tragedy. We will also hear the usual defence of personal liberties and constitutional protection of the right to bear arms. In addition, non-Americans like me will be told that this is a domestic debate in which we have no legitimate voice.
My response is that I claim a voice because I have worked in schools; I claim a voice because I know and have taught American children; I claim a voice because I have enough working brain cells to recognise that the correlation between easy gun ownership and sky-high levels of gun crime is not a coincidence, and that a constitution written two hundred years ago for a society in which the survival of the nation was under threat may not provide a perfect blueprint for today; I claim a voice because I view what happened at Sandy Hook in the same way I view apartheid, or the suppression of free speech, or the oppression of women, or the exploitation of children, i.e. as a violation of the standards to which the human race should aspire.
President Obama has promised ‘meaningful action’. I hope that my voice will be added to the voices of millions around the world, rising to a deafening volume that cannot be ignored, and that will strengthen his resolve to prevail against those who will want to resist any action. The US claims the right to exert influence beyond its borders in support of human rights, and when it considers a government is failing to protect its people. It is time for them to hear that the rest of the humanity claims the reciprocal right.