On Newtown

by Corinne Purtill

On Friday afternoon I was walking home with my daughter in a cold and heavy rain. On our left were the mossy tombs and crumbling ruins of the medieval church tower in our neighborhood; on our right, the splashing rush of an approaching car. As it passed I saw it was a hearse, and then I saw the grotesquely shrunken proportions of the coffin, and the toys placed amid the flowers. At this same time, a dreadful thing was happening in Connecticut.

It is cliché to say that having a child changes the way one reacts to events like these but it’s true. It’s not that parenthood automatically opens a greater capacity for empathy. All decent people feel sorrow at the news of a child’s death. My response now is far more selfish. Now that I can more clearly imagine what it would be like to lose a child, I cannot allow myself to imagine it at all. The sight of that small coffin halted my steps but the black town car behind it with the couple inside made me ill.

On Saturday Newtown was on the front page of every newspaper here. By Monday most had moved the story inside. The UK is not grieving in the way America is. The general response is that these killings are terribly sad and senseless and criminal, but that they are also the product of a culture that confoundingly accepts the possibility of such events.

It is illegal to own a handgun in Great Britain, a law that was adopted without much fuss in 1995 after a school shooting. In 2007, according to the Small Arms Survey, there were 41 firearm homicides in England and Wales; in the US, there were 9,146.

Do not interpret this as evidence of enlightenment on this side of the Atlantic. If the US media follows a pattern of righteous and invasively sentimental coverage in the wake of these disasters, the UK press relies on its own lazy clichés to shamelessly paint the US as a nation of gun-crazed zealots. I may want to hurl a shoe at the BBC reporter explaining with a straight face that “many Americans go to sleep with a gun beneath their pillow,” but I am only experiencing belatedly what residents of the Middle East and north Africa must feel when they watch Western reporters’ stand-ups from their cities. The news of yet another mass shooting in America lands here in much the way that reports of bombings in Gaza are received in the US. It’s sad, of course, but look at their history, and their culture. It’ll go on until they’re ready to do something about it. Shame, that.

I have my own feelings about America’s gun laws, but tragedies like this have a way of hijacking what should be sober debate with emotional tirades that burn out once sensation fades. I suspect that anything I’d write at the moment would only contribute to that. I just know that the headline of Sunday’s New York Times was “Children Were All Shot Multiple Times With Semi-Automatic” and that is barbaric.

It’s off the website now, but two days ago you could buy the same model of Bushmaster rifle the killer used in Newtown at Wal-Mart. Nineteen of 20 reviewers gave it five stars.