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Let’s remember, not forget

Working to prevent tragedies is how to keep memory alive

Published: Thursday, Dec. 27, 2012 4:59 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — “You are not alone” was a central theme of last week’s memorial services in Newtown, Conn. The meaning of the message is twofold: that all the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting are grieved across the nation and world, and that too many communities in the United States and abroad have faced similar tragedies.

Events like Sandy Hook are not confined to the present or to the United States, but the sad chronology of school violence seen in recent years makes me wonder what is ahead for Newtown. Over the next weeks, months and years, I think four questions will be at the center of debate.

Who is responsible and could the killings have been prevented? It is not enough to know that the killer is dead. When a murderer, like this one, comes from within a community, tremendous soul searching ensues: “Why did he direct his rage against us?” and “Why didn’t we recognize the threat?”

When killers come from outside a community, strike at random or are clearly mentally unstable, it is sometimes easier for communities to view a tragedy as an accident or “act of God,” and to distance the violence from the victims. This may not be possible in Newtown and much debate is likely to focus on responsibility and prevention.

What can be done to avoid letting this happen again? Gun control and improved mental health care have already surfaced as at least partial solutions in the aftermath of Sandy Hook. But these only scratch the surface of the issues involved.

The ready availability of guns makes them weapons of convenience, but determined killers such as the Bath, Mich., school bomber in 1927 or Timothy McVeigh, who parked his truck bomb — intentionally — in front of the day-care center at the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, will find other weapons. In the U.S., interpersonal and mass violence represent the convergence of many trends and factors, as Michael Moore sought to point out in his controversial film “Bowling for Columbine.” Focusing on guns, mental health and school security are important but shouldn’t short-circuit broader discussion of the causes of violence.

At the same time, tragedies like Sandy Hook have resulted in change. Already commentators have expressed despair about confronting yet again the issues of gun control, school security and interpersonal violence. We forget, but among the reasons that buildings are safer, fire departments better equipped and emergency personnel more effective are because we have learned from past tragedies.

How do we mourn and remember the victims? Mourning doesn’t end at the graveside. In coming months and years, one of the most important issues the survivors in Newtown will face is finding a way to honor and commemorate the children and teachers who died on Dec. 14, as well as to recognize those who responded to the tragedy. There is no easy solution.

In some cases, communities have sought to erase all evidence of tragedies like Newtown’s, to seemingly efface or deny that something so terrible could have happened so close to home as, for example, at the Nickel Mines School shooting in Pennsylvania in 2006. In other cases, memorialization has been rapid as, for example, after the Collinwood School fire of 1908 in Cleveland and the New London, Texas, disaster of 1937.

How long will the hurt last? I’m not sure that “closure” is ever reached, or even that the idea of “closure” is a worthwhile aim. For survivors, families and communities, the surge of pain and grief is intense in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy, but I’m not convinced that the sense of loss and anguish ever completely goes away. More often events like the killings in Newtown ripple through communities and society for a very long time.

When I visit historic sites of community tragedy, such as the site of the 1944 circus fire in Hartford’s North End, I am often reduced to tears reading the inscriptions on the paving bricks and seeing the mementos people still leave at the memorial. But isn’t it better to remember than to forget?

Keeping memory alive means working to prevent tragedies like Newtown in the future and helping other families and communities facing similar tragedies. I can’t predict what will come of this tragedy this year, next year or a generation from now, but I hope it will be remembered as they day we turned the corner on these school shootings and began to address solutions, rather than to mourn the victims and attempt to forget.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Kenneth Foote is a professor of geography at the University of Colorado Boulder. He can be reached at k.foote@colorado.edu.

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