“I just want Christmas,” the little boy told his teacher. “I don’t want to die. I just want to have Christmas.”
The first-grader at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, will have his Christmas. Twenty of his six- and seven-year-old classmates won’t.
Maybe the boy heard the gunshots and screams while he was hidden with other boys and girls in a bathroom while the gunman stalked the corridors. Many at the school did, and the public-address system was on.
A lot of the young ones were led past the bodies of schoolmates and their teachers to safety.
What kind of Christmas will any of them have? How will they cope with the promise of happy festivities so brutally broken? How can joy be brought to their world at this season ever again?
Child psychiatrists say some will cope by re-enacting what they witnessed with stuffed toys and playing dead themselves. There are hard times coming for many parents.
It has been argued that this was not a tragedy in the original sense of the word.
In Greek tragedy, victims bring about or help to bring about their own downfall.
The children slain in Newtown were innocent victims. They played no part in their own destruction.
But this was a tragedy — a national tragedy. The nation itself helped bring about the grief that its people, especially its parents, must feel at this time.
Over the past week, there have been signs that another effort will be made to treat America’s greatest sickness. There seems to be a flickering political consensus at least to reinstate the ban on assault rifles and high-capacity magazines that was allowed to lapse so casually, so carelessly, in 2007.
Whatever is done, there can be no cure for this sickness. An evil gun-slinging virus has the body politic by the throat and won’t let go.
It’s fed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s perverse determination that the Constitution’s second amendment guarantees a right with attitudes and consequences that the framers of the Bill of Rights wouldn’t have contemplated in 1791.
It’s nourished by the myth that freedom, as security, can be preserved only by guns. When there’s a mass shooting, gun sales can jump as they did after 12 were killed and 58 injured in an Aurora, Colorado, cinema in July.
Today it’s being said that children can be protected in schools only if those in charge of them are armed.
Newtown is a long way from Dunblane, Scotland, where a similar school horror in 1996 precipitated a ban on private handguns throughout Britain.
All this will remind those of the Christian faith how human beings are capable of both good and evil. They might reflect on how evil, particularly against children, can be facilitated by a people who proclaim their trust in God.
The Bible records an earlier massacre of the innocents. According to Matthew, Joseph and Mary had to flee to Egypt with Jesus to save him from a pogrom of children under the age of two ordered by Herod.
But then, children didn’t seem to enjoy a particularly exalted status in the Bible. They were to be killed if they disobeyed their parents. Isaac almost paid with his life so that his father could demonstrate his faith in a stern God.
American fathers and mothers today have a more positive attitude to their children, to all children. The life of a child gives a parent’s life its meaning.
American optimistic confidence, though it may be irritating to others, survives horrors that might confound people of other, less-defiant societies.
The American way is paved with childish things. The Promised Land can’t compete with Disneyland. The birth of Christ is celebrated with turkey and tinsel.
The death of children in Newtown must not spoil Christmas anywhere. A massacre is not an acceptable topic for the dinner table. Neither is the death of children by starvation, disease and bombs in places where shattered streets resound not with wassailing but wailing.
In Newtown, kids will have their Christmas. But they will pass by silent houses where presents have been removed, still wrapped, from under trees with lights unlit.