Words matter. Descriptions matter.
For example, I don't personally refer to the massacre of 20 first graders and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012 as "the Sandy Hook shootings" although others do. Sandy Hook is a part of Newtown, and Newtown is my home. To call it something other than Newtown feels to me like saying it happened to "them" and sets them apart, when it happened to us and devastated the entire town.
If I want to indicate something that is reserved for those who lost someone or who was there, like a visit with the President or an invitation to a Congressional hearing on gun legislation, I'll talk about "the families" or Sandy Hook School.
That's not to say that I begrudge anyone else saying it, particularly those who live in Sandy Hook. They get to refer to it any way they want. It's just one of those things to be aware of, the subtlety in language and usage that nonetheless carries meaning.
Here's another issue to be aware of, and Newtowners struggle with it. Is the number memorialized 20 (the children), 26 (killed at the school), 27 (the victims, including Nancy Lanza)? It's never 28, though that's the number of deaths we recorded on 12/14. I promise you, the answer to that question is not an easy one to answer, though 26 is the most commonly seen number. There were 27 victims, 26 at Sandy Hook School.
Whatever the number, whatever the expression of grief, it wil be a long, long time before we get over it.
My friend and fellow Newtown resident, MaryAnn Murtha expressed a lot of this in an op-ed that appeared in the Washington Post this week:
You know also that Newtown is suffering. A man shot and killed 20 of our schoolchildren and six of our educators in a matter of minutes on Dec. 14. Since then, green and white ribbons, the colors of Sandy Hook Elementary School, adorn our jackets, as we console each other and proclaim that we are Newtown Strong. Our shared grief is so thick you can almost hold it in your hands. As a town we weep unexpectedly and openly, just as our governor, Dannel Malloy, a tough former assistant district attorney from Brooklyn, choked up as he spoke during the opening of Connecticut’s legislative session. As one woman told me, standing by the cucumbers in the grocery store, tears welling in her eyes, “You just never know when it’s gonna hit ya.”But as haunting a description as that was, MaryAnn wrote that op-ed to advance an idea:
Many have asked, What can we do? Well, here’s my answer: For the sake of the victims, their families, Sandy Hook and Newtown, call the shooting 12/14.Let's explore more of that idea below the fold.
The national media have, insensitively, begun to call 12/14 “Sandy Hook” or “Newtown.” Listening to TV the other night, I heard someone say, “We just don’t want another Newtown.” Ouch.
Our friends in Columbine know. Our friends in Aurora know. Our friends in Oklahoma City know. Having your town’s name synonymous with an evil act does not aid the healing process; in fact, it adds to the pain and casts shadows. Here in Newtown, we have seen enough darkness. We need your light, your love and your support.
I have had to call people outside of CT on multiple occasions since 12/14. I cringe a bit inside when I need to tell them where I am calling from.
It's not because I am ashamed of my town; far from it. The heroism shown on 12/14 was awesome, in every sense of that overused word. The teachers, the first responders, my fellow pediatricians, everyone involved—how can you not be inspired by them? They saved lives, though not enough of them.
No, I cringe because I'm not angling to elicit the "Oh. Oh, my. I'm so sorry!" response that identification of the location so often brings. In fact, the genuine emotion of grief and sorrow that I've received in that and other settings is heartwarming, just as it has been from commenters right here at Daily Kos. But it belongs in another setting, at another time, and like other townsfolk, I can be grateful while still wishing there were some way for the name to not invoke that kind of response, especially when I'm calling to transact some routine and mundane business and get on about it as efficiently as I can.
It's hard to tell people what to say and how to label things. It's always been one of my objections to the idea of "framing". Framing isn't unimportant, but in so many contexts people decide for themselves how they label things, rather than take advice from others. I can't see myself calling for it the way MaryAnn did, but I can see myself using it.
Nonetheless, MaryAnn advances an interesting thought. To call it 12/14 does depersonalize it a bit, or "de-town" it, if you will.
As a native New Yorker, I have always had an easier time thinking about 9/11 rather than the World Trade Center (another still-painful event that involved people I knew). That date, that set of events also involved more than just one locale, and it was a convenient shorthand to recognize the Pentagon and Flight 93 as well as the two towers. But now that Newtown gets mentioned so often, I can see the attraction of thinking of it as 12/14.
In any case, give it some thought. It's not an idea that will universally catch on, all at once. But the original 9/11 didn't catch on immediately either. And yes, I can already see that apologies are due to those born on that date (there's been at least one comment to that effect). In that regard, I'm sure my friend Markos Moulitsas, publisher of this web site and born on September 11, has his own opinion.
Here's an example from this week's Newtown Bee, the local paper. In a story about a grassroots support group called Sandy Hook Promise, it's mentioned that
"People who go through [this kind of trauma] don't even know for a long time what they need," Ms DeYoung said. How people change from an event like 12/14 is something that may have to be addressed down the road.You'll hear 12/14 in town, and perhaps we'll hear it elsewhere.
Well, however you think of the idea, think on Newtown kindly. The generosity from outside has been overwhelming, but at this stage in our post-traumatic recovery, the intent is to get back to normal rather than try to remain unique. Keep that in mind when you discuss the 12/14 concept.
Of course, there's another way you can remember Newtown and 12/14, and that's to participate in the national dialogue about gun rights, gun safety and gun violence. Do it in a way that respects all sides of the issue and all points of view. That Sandy Hook Promise group I mentioned is doing the same.
Sandy Hook Promise will reach out to gun advocacy groups as they explore a position to take on gun responsibility, they said. "You have to talk to both sides," Mr Makris emphasized. "We're saying we need dialogue with people to see where is the resistance," he said.Remember that the goal isn't to win an argument, it's to stop more children from being killed. If what you're saying or doing isn't furthering that aim, you're not learning from Newtown's experience and what happened on 12/14.
All subjects are open to discussion. By bringing in people with divergent viewpoints, understanding may come about. In a country of ideas and innovation, Mr Shull said, they are looking for new ideas to old problems.
They see it as a positive sign that Sandy Hook Promise has attracted a diverse group of people. "We have gun owners, and non-gun owners. We have people who belong to the NRA. There are Republicans and Democrats here," Mr Shull said.
On the other hand, if you hear what everyone has to say, if you truly listen, and maybe learn, we will perhaps do the right thing and have the courage to act to honor those who acted with courage on 12/14.
Now, that would be something.