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Dec 17, 2012

In Connecticut, it's too calm and too practised

The meditative reflection on display after the Newtown massacre seems too polished and well-practised. It's a particular condition of a more general process -- fatalism encroaching on daily life.


By the time the bishop came to the lectern at the Bridgeport council chambers, to read the names of the dead — the children and the teachers — of the Sandy Hook school, the air was already being broken by raspy coughs and sniffles. The crowd of 200 or so, white and black in equal measure, suits and track suits, Sunday church dress and leather jackets, had assembled, it seemed, in a few minutes.

At a quarter to five I’d been standing beneath the portico of an empty city hall. Then they had come, poured in from the vacant lots and the multi-storey carpark, the shabby main street. We had had Amazing Grace, we had the schools superintendent, the senior counsellor giving out homilies utterly inadequate to the situation. The crowd had started quiet, and got quieter. By the end of the speeches the silence was like a gasp, air removed from a room.

And, as the names came, in the bishop’s deep bass, we more or less lost it. “Benjamin Wheeler [beat] six. Josephine Gay [beat] six. Chase Koloski, six.” Six, seven, six, six: like a series of hammer blows. The flutish breathy sound began at the front and began to roll slowly back. It was harmonic, tuneful, it was so many people moaning that the sound had harmonised become a descant.

Bridgeport was the first town on the Metro North out of Manhattan. Of the dozen or so holding vigils this afternoon, a port town, where the Connecticut River meets the bay, concrete pylons and overpasses across the water, the deserted and graffitied redbrick city within. It was a foul and dark day, grey sky low to the horizon, all but catching on church steeples, winter trees at the edge of sodden fields, barely there. It is three days from the solstice, midnight of the year.

Across the state they are holding vigils, a candlelight vigil in Marlborough, a lantern release in Hartfield, in Derby, in Clinton, Middletown and Naugatuck, Plainville and Hebron. In the ecumenical church, beside Route One, at the firehouse, on the town green. Commuter towns along the coast, yielding to farms, then more commuter towns. Old villages now part of the vast urban web of New York, places there and not there. They stretch to cities beyond the state line, but it is here that the memory is concentrated. They don’t move far in New England, so the map of the killings spreads out — a teacher born in Middlebury, children whose family had just moved west 20 miles from Vernon.

Further away, it’s on continuous rotation on TV. The 24-hour news channels in cabs and diners, foyers and banks; the continuous procession of psychologists and pastors, so and so, PhD with one book, interviews done from Newtown, on the heath, before more dead trees, host and guest standing close, rugged up, breathing vapour as they speak. No one can know the nature of evil, they say, the shooter was autistic but we shouldn’t stigmatise the mentally ill, we will eventually be able to map brain functions and have warning signs.

It’s the guns, stupid, says someone. No, Connecticut has strict gun laws, it’s the culture of violence. It’s God not in the classrooms anymore. It’s this, it’s that. It’s a mystery, a mystery, a mystery. Any sense of a news presentation has long since dissolved in the flux, the noise, the grey river of staying on air. Parents vox-popped, holding tears back, jaws clenched against collapse, standing on fairy-lit porches, klieg-lit lawns, clapboard-like backdrop.

The details of what happened in the school, pieced together and published in the Hartford Courant, simply do not bear reading about, and I suggest you trust me on that. The adults were brave, and they died; the children were terrified, and they died. No other useful information is imparted.

“The meditative reflection on display strikes one as a particular condition of a more general process — the manner in which a type of fatalism has encroached on daily life at the very root — in America.”

Oh save this: of the teacher who, realising what was happening, started yelling “lockdown”, as per authorised procedure. Meaning, such things are now so anticipated they are prepared for like fires or floods. Meaning, people have sat round in rooms, gaming it out, working out what procedure would limit the deaths, triaging massacre. They work for the education department. But they now have the same role as jaded federal aviation authority types describe their job. They follow the bodies.

By now, as they poured out of the City Hall, night had come down. Obama had landed in Danbury an hour or so earlier. He was visiting with parents of the dead children, relatives of the teachers, ahead of addressing a vigil at Newtown High School, the place the children would eventually have attended. I grabbed a cab, got on the freeway. The traffic thickened pretty quickly, it was obvious everyone had the same idea. We swung by Sandy Hook to see the school first, or the closest approach.

The entrance was forest-dark, the backblocks of a small town, houses without fences in rolling hills, screened by trees. At half a dozen streets cherry tops flashing through the night, state cops with rainshields stretched over their hats. They were antsy, agro, as a lot of people around had been today.

“How far is the school down there?” I asked pointing over the roadblock. “You’re not going down to the school.” “Sir I didn’t ask to, I just asked …” “I’ve been on here 11 hours OK, 11 hours buddy.” “OK, I-.” “Just go, just go …”

At the Newtown School, the gruesome electronic carnivale had set up along the main drag, truck after truck, platforms set ups lights and logos. Teleprompters scrolling to no one, faces being dusted. Local families walking the road to the hall. A feed showing them setting up deep inside. All calm, all practised.

I stepped out of the cab, had a look at the plangently sad memorial pile, teddy bears and mauve balloons under the town’s main square Christmas tree, and then we went to a Starbucks to file, caught on the freeway ramp for 20 minutes, as the presidential motorcade flashed past, and for some time after. Red lights and black cars in the night. There was something awful about it all, the massive movements of power in the service of broadcast compassion and comfort, shuttling ceaselessly through the night. All calm, all practised.

Too calm, too practised. They are too good at this now. There is too much stricken meditation on the unknowable nature of evil, too much “this is not a day for politics”, too much coming together, too much spirituality that is really passivity with a gloss, too many candles, too many floating lanterns. These things have become as polished and inverted in intent as teen funerals with their slideshow montages to Time of Your Life.

There’s something nauseating about such forbearance. The systematic and thorough killing of 20 children under seven should not be an occasion for which anyone is sufficiently prepared. By its very nature, it should be an occasion for hysteria, for disarray, for uncontrollable grief. Occupy Connecticut should not be spruiking floating lantern vigils, they should be besieging the office of the Sporting Shooters Association which lobbies for legal assault weapons, and which is headquartered in, gosh, Newtown, Connecticut.

The meditative reflection on display strikes one as a particular condition of a more general process — the manner in which a type of fatalism has encroached on daily life at the very root — in America. Though expressed in religious terms, it seems to have more to do with the all-encompassing power of abstract systems, corporations, processes, a life lived in permanent suspension from the real.

“We need to take action,” the superintendent had said in Bridgeport and I brightened for a moment. “We need to take action to comfort, action to be vigilant.” Which is not action at all, but its opposite.

Now as I file, Obama is soon to speak in Newtown. He too has been called “the comforter-in-chief” in this strange and awful moment. Will he break out of that role tonight or in the days to come, put himself at the head of a movement to action? Or will the wailing move from the Bridgeport Hall, out the doors and across the nation?


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39 thoughts on “In Connecticut, it’s too calm and too practised

  1. paddy

    A truly excellent piece, about an utterly appalling event.
    Thanks Guy.
    Just hoping that this time, the polished response might crack, so there’s some vague hope of real change.

  2. gerard

    The real killers are the pro-gun senators. While they did not pull the triggers, neither did those Serbian,Bosnian, Croation generals. The killing of twenty children is a crime against humanity and a direct result of the pro-gun lobbyists in the US. Stop further murder and sign the petition please!

  3. felicity_biggins@hotmail.com

    Yes. As always, you are spot on Rundle.

  4. SusieQ

    Yes, excellent Guy, well done. What more can be said?

  5. syzygium

    “The details of what happened in the school, pieced together and published in the Hartford Courant, simply do not bear reading about, and I suggest you trust me on that. The adults were brave, and they died; the children were terrified, and they died. No other useful information is imparted.”

    That’s excellent advice Guy, I will take it. In our 24/7 voyeuristic news world, more reporting like this is what’s needed. Thanks again and a beautiful piece. Just heard Obama’s speech and more or less lost it myself. There is hope there that this time, things will change.

  6. gerard

    The real killers are the pro-gun senators that are holding, like the true gangsters they are, a nation to ransom with their pro-gun ‘right to bear arms’ mantra.
    This was not only heinous but also a crime against humanity. And, those pro-gun senators,are, like those Croats, Bosnian, and Serbian generals, just as responsible for the deaths of so many.
    Bring them to The Hague at let the International Court of Justice deal with them.

  7. Andybob

    A two thirds majority in both House and Senate
    Ratification by 75% of States

    All it takes for the USA to change its gun culture and revoke the Second Amendment is for enough people to want that change and elect politicians reflecting their view.

  8. Jonathan Maddox

    Correction — it’s the National Shooting Sports Foundation (US gun retailer’s association, http://www.nssf.org/) that’s headquartered in Newtown, Connecticutt, not the Sporting Shooter’s Association (Australian sporting body, http://www.ssaa.org.au/) which is headquartered in the Western Sydney suburb of Plumpton, NSW.

  9. Jonathan Maddox

    Once more, without URLs.

    Correction — it’s the National Shooting Sports Foundation (US gun retailer’s association) that’s headquartered in Newtown, Connecticutt, not the Sporting Shooter’s Association (Australian sporting body) which is headquartered in the Western Sydney suburb of Plumpton, NSW.

  10. Glen

    Gun control is another of those diabolical challenges. Like some grotesque combination of big tobacco (profit mad pedlars of death, BS PR, manipulated opinion) and big climate. By the latter, I mean that, like CO2 in the atmosphere*, guns last a very long time and can be near impossible to extract. The US has 300 million of them.

    I vividly recall, years ago, some Californian friends oiling up their guns as the after dinner activity. Among them was a WW1 Lee-Enfield. (They were surprised that I knew how to dismantle it — they didn’t. Cadets of course, where I fired one.) It was still in perfect order and the ammunition is readily available, all set for your next massacre. Which is, of course, what it was designed for.

    (* The average lifetime of CO2 in the atmosphere is about 100 years. Around 20% lasts for thousands of years.)

  11. Solid gold creativity (aka Narelle Hanratty)

    If something is said, let it be said straight and with compassion, like this piece. Great point here, amongst many:

    “Though expressed in religious terms, it seems to have more to do with the all-encompassing power of abstract systems, corporations, processes, a life lived in permanent suspension from the real.”

  12. Merve

    “The details of what happened in the school, pieced together and published in the Hartford Courant, simply do not bear reading about, and I suggest you trust me on that. The adults were brave, and they died; the children were terrified, and they died. No other useful information is imparted.”

    An excellent piece of journalism. Too much of the news of tragedy today is voyerism.

  13. zut alors

    A good piece, Guy.

    Sure, this wickedness makes us sad…but, even more, it makes me angry. All the babble about monitoring mental health misses the point that the US has an endemic cultural sickness which reveres weaponry.

  14. Malcolm Street

    “The systematic and thorough killing of 20 children under seven should not be an occasion for which anyone is sufficiently prepared. ”

    Got it in one! This is one seriously sick society.

  15. drmick

    The current NSW senate balance of power is controlled by the same throwbacks who enabled the Columbine massacre and all the other massacres to occur. They are thrown money by the current premier and told to go a shoot the bejezus out of the fauna, (and the public), in the National Parks as a reward for complicity in destroying 150 years of hard earned legislation.
    It really is no different here with or without One Nation

  16. Microseris

    As always, able to cut through the lack of emotion in the reporting from the MSM to cut to the heart of the subject.

    Mass murders seem to be another symptom of the illness of our modern society.

    This piece ties in with Friday’s Crikey article noting that republicans are stocking up on guns in the wake of Obama’s election win. In this light, good luck trying to get them to hand the guns back.

  17. Malcolm Street

    AndyBob – IMHO the Second Amendment doesn’t necessarily need to be repealed, it needs to be clarified. It’s screamingly obvious to me that it refers to firearms ownership only in the context of a “well ordered militia”, but I can see that the following text about the right to bear arms can be interpreted as standing separately.

    Israel and Switzerland have “well ordered militias” and *only in conjunction with that* high rates of firearms ownership, but don’t have this sort of thing going on among the general population. There’s a big difference between bearing arms being seen as a right and being seen, as in these two nations, as a *social responsibility*, one only allowed within a framework of military discipline and structure.

    Of course you could also see bearing arms as a privilege, which is how all other developed nations regard it.


    Thanks Guy, truly moving and provocative. Of course the question is whether this horrible event provokes some real action, but the underlying mordant tone of this piece says that it will not. America is living outside reality, just as the gunman was living in some fantasy, an artificial reality, like some violent computer game running in his head. As they go through the motions, yet again, let’s hope there are a brave few who will speak up and tell America to wake up from their self-induced coma…and enough heed the call.

  19. puddleduck

    Did I hear right that 2 million guns were purchased in the last month in the US? Or was it my befuddled brain listening to the ghastly coverage on the radio this morning when I woke up?

  20. joanjett

    @ microseris I actually wondered if that was to do with Sarah Silverman’s ingenious ploy to outfox the Voter ID laws that were going to inhibit peoples’ right to vote! Didn’t she sign her grandma up for a gun license?
    Seriously though, most of the US websites have pro gun trolls who seem to be using this little gem:
    I wonder if this is where some of our home grown trolls learn their dark arts! Very informative indeed…

  21. michael crook

    Good article Guy. Malcolm you are quite right.
    As long as every decision we make in our western so-called democracies is based on whether someone can make a dollar, we are doomed to keep repeating these social disasters. There are good examples of societal planning and operation which actually involve educating our children in something other than a culture of violence. But sadly, not in the US and not in Australia.

  22. geezlouise

    Great writing. Thanks.

  23. Hamis Hill

    Perhaps gun control should revert to Citizen Militia.
    Its members would,in compliance with the Constitution and Adam Smith’s arguments for a citizens militia against the power of the state, restrict and discipline access to military weapons to their own membership and enforce this in their own, limited local areas.
    Anyone who wants to use military weapons can do so within the militia, all others are outside the law and subject to sanction.
    It works for Switzerland, where the Austrians have not tried to impose their religious prejudices upon their protestant neighbours for several centuries.
    Those with a “legitimate” reason for military weapons get to keep them and the lone nutters are denied access.
    Matters should revert to the case in neighbouring Canada, where everyone has guns but only use them for hunting or target practise.
    The real moral is that from time immemorial the citizens of free societies have always had access to weapons, from the early Roman Republic to the Anglo-Saxon tribes, and these weapons were for the defence of those societies.
    Standing Armies and Police Forces are late developments.
    The legitimate militia can and would control access to military weapons and stop massacres.

  24. Dogs breakfast

    “The adults were brave, and they died; the children were terrified, and they died. No other useful information is imparted.”

    That’s enough for me. As appalled as I was by the act, I found the television coverage just awful.

    There are some news stories, yeah I know, you won’t believe it, but some stories are better read about some distance after the event. God knows if the glorification of it all doesn’t inspire the next massacre.

    While not necessarily despising the televisual media coverage, or even most of the newspapers, I can’t help thinking that they are making money broadcasting this news.

    There comes a time like this, the tsunami in Japan, and again in Indonesia, where it seems obscene that a corporation is making money from the coverage of the event. Perhaps a voluntary code of giving up all advertising revenue for that half hour news bulletin, or that edition, would assuage my feelings of capitalist-gone-mad angst.

    Am I the only one that thinks in such tangents?

    Don’t answer that!

  25. Kevin Herbert

    Very sad indeed….no family should have to endure such trauma….the 320 kids under 10 years old who were shelled to death in the IDF’s Cast Lead massacre in Gaza a few years ago had parents who to this day suffer as these poor New Englanders do… you have to wonder as to the morality of a culture who allows these types of obscenities to occur.

  26. Whistleblower

    Whilst I was deeply concerned about the school massacre in the US, I am even more disturbed at the weighting applied by the media to this unfortunate incident. There is a similar exploitative parallel in relation to the so-called “prank call” and the death of a British nurse.

    Based on a quick analysis of reported statistics in the civil war in Syria, an average of 56 civilians a day are dying, and this hardly registers as a “blip on the radar scope” of the media. Yet the deaths of 27 civilians in the USA attracts disproportionate attention which can only be considered to be racist.

    One has to seriously question the objectivity of all forms of media, print, television and radio when their prime objective is attracting attention. Whilst the pursuit of the advertising dollar can be understood on the basis of commercial media, where voyeurism sells product, there is no excuse however for the ABC which similarly involves itself in the media feeding frenzy when some of these so-called disasters occur.

    In considering the fragile mental state of the perpetrators of mass killings, one is inescapably drawn to the conclusion that posthumous recognition is possibly a strong motivating factor for the mentally unbalanced, and that the media will provide this recognition to the point of obsession because of the commercial value of advertising time associated with consumer voyeurism. Accordingly a more balanced and objective presentation is required, at least for those sections of the media claimed to be representing responsible journalism.

  27. Boo

    We might have tighter guns laws, but to be frank these types of weapons (handguns espeically) are easy enough to get a hold of. But, we don’t seem to suffer the massacres. Plenty of pollies trying to milk the pro and anti. And we aren’t alone in this regard. I suspect the reasons why this is so would be as hard or harder to address in the USA than tightening gun ownership?

  28. Boo

    Get hold of … illegally that is!

  29. TheFamousEccles

    Well written, Mr Rundle. Though I simply feel sadder and even more futile. As a father of a young boy near the age of some, I am bereft.

  30. banistersmind

    The Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy was an indescribable horror story. In the aftermath, I searched beyond the meaningless words on social media to find a tangible way to support the victims and their families. I found it.


  31. Harry Rogers

    Good report . Unfortunately until neuroscience learns how to isolate unwanted traits and perform lobotomies we will be encumbered with people like this and the numerous others that wander society.

  32. pritu

    For the past two days I have had the radio and tv off. The harlots that run these media have fine tuned the art of turning any act of horror into a means of emotionally milking their audiences, endlessly. It’s beyond shameful. Using victims’ grief as “reality tv” show.

  33. Anna Kae

    too calm and too practised?

    Really? Perhaps, Mr R you can enlighten us on how a parent and a community is supposed to act after twenty children have had their heads blown open with some 11 bullets each!!

    I would question that what you witnessed was shock maybe?

    Further more, while you thought of your literary piece did you even shed a tear when you were there? Did you speak with any of the bereaved parents?

    Fortunately I can’t believe you are as heartless as your piece makes you out to be.

    Time and a place! It was a time for community mourning and I don’t believe that such events should ever be held up to some journalist’s perceived standards of how they should be run.

  34. syzygium

    “And, as the names came, in the bishop’s deep bass, we more or less lost it.”

    Anna, he did shed a tear or six. We all have. I believe Rundle was referring to the fact that everyone knew what had happened as soon as it happened – who the assailant was, what the weapon was, and how the scenario was playing out. Chilling also that the teachers went into “lockdown” mode because they were trained to expect something like this. In other words, unlike the attack on the Twin Towers, this was not something completely out of the norm and unexpected.

  35. gerard

    And… without strict gun control banning weapons this will likely happen again. Hundreds of millions of weapons around and sooner or later an arranged mind will act on impulses. That’s why we should sign the dozens of petitions around joining the campaigns to change those silly gun laws in the US.
    Please sign up and do something positive about it.

  36. Kevin Herbert

    Death by the gun is a constant partner of US culture at home and abroad.

    How many of you are aware that in its continuing illegally waged multiple wars (i.e. without the approval of the both House of Congress as necessary under its Constitution) since 1960, the good ol USA has killed/murdered more than 5 million UNARMED CIVILIANS i.e. men, women & children…let’s say that figure would conservatively be more than 1 million children.

    More than 3 million unarmed civilians were murdered in Vietnam alone.


    The USA is a broken society and this most unfortunate, and on a global basis comparatively minor event, will be replicated somewhere else acroos its homeland in the not too distant future.

    Hell..one of Obama’s drone hit list targets might kill 50 innocent men women & children in the Middle East…I wonder if he weeps for them too…

  37. floorer

    I’m with Anna Kae.

  38. Hamis Hill

    Anyone remember Waco?
    No acts of state tyranny to get the paranoids going?
    The local militia must control the weaponry.
    In the meantime, in Australia an uncontrolled private army of poorly vetted security guards, many with criminal records, is not a threat of tyranny?
    With one vote Tony subverting his political party with a mob of politico-religious dementoids, trashing parliamentary conventions and supported by imbeciles who genuinely believe his political opponents are all “Godless Communists”, there is not much that complacent and over-proud Australians can offer their US cousins.

  39. Guy Rundle

    I wasn’t criticising the people who were mourning on the spot Anna. If you read the section you criticised with the elvel of diligence necessary to making a comment, you’ll see that it was directed at the general media and the commentariat, not the parents, and the way in which US culture now simply manages such things – though that has changed in the past days. The opening section was uncritical. And as i said ‘we all lost it’ – so your question as to whether I shed a tear or not was answered in the article.

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