Tears and Starlight in Newtown: How the President Brought Comfort

The town arrived to mourn and seek meaning out of the carnage. It received one of the most powerful sermons ever delivered by a U.S. President

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David Goldman / AP

Mourners listen to a memorial service over a loudspeaker outside Newtown High School for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 16, 2012.

The first of Newtown’s residents began walking down the roadway while it was still daylight, more than three hours before President Obama was scheduled to speak. They started the trek at the main intersection in the village of Sandy Hook. On one corner, under a two-story Christmas tree, they paused to place stuffed animals, signs and flowers by the hundreds. On the other side of the village’s only stoplight, Riverside Drive leads up a hill to the site of the Dec. 14 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

It’s exactly one mile along Berkshire Road to Newtown High School, and they walked by the dozens, a few at first and then a steady stream through the freezing rain. When they reached the high school, they quietly formed an unbroken serpentine line that snaked through the parking lot. Those who weren’t from Newtown came from neighboring towns and villages, and from New York and New Jersey. A group of more than 100 Sikhs drove from four congregations in Massachusetts to show their solidarity with the people of Newtown. “We were devastated when one of our places of worship was attacked,” says Sarbpreet Singh, referring to the August shooting at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek. “We are no less devastated today.”

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As volunteers from the Red Cross moved up and down the line, handing out blankets and stuffed toys for the children, the gymnasium where the President was to speak filled up, and the remaining crowd members were told they would be sent to overflow rooms. Some left, saying they could do better watching at home, but the vast majority stayed in line, wishing, at the very least, to be gathered with others while searching for answers as to why one young local resident had murdered 20 of Newtown’s young children.

It is a question that has plagued this town since 9:30 a.m. on Dec. 14, when the first reports emerged of a shooting at the school. Over the weekend, with each new detail, the madness behind it all seemed to grow exponentially until it seemed greater than the sum of its parts. After shooting his mother in the head, 20-year-old Adam Lanza drove to the elementary school, shot the principal and other members of the staff and then, using a weapon similar to those carried by soldiers and Marines, fired bullets meant to kill insurgents into the bodies of children still young enough to have their baby teeth. Later reports from police officials said Lanza had hundreds of rounds left over when he took his own life.

After 2½ days of grieving, crying, praying and questioning, the people of Newtown turned out in droves for the visit from the President. The Commander in Chief, who in his tenure has had to be comforter in chief for five mass shootings, three hurricanes, two tornadoes and a giant oil spill, faced the challenge of trying to catalyze the process of healing amid anger, disbelief and sorrow. Many expected Obama to talk about gun control, which has leaped to the forefront of national discourse in a way that didn’t occur after the massacre in Aurora, Colo., in July. He would, but without using the word gun once. Others wanted compassion and understanding, and a discussion of the broader complexities of guns, mental illness, the culture of violence and how our busy, digitally connected lives sometimes leave young people to be forgotten. He would too. The speech would be greater than the sum of its parts.

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Sunday night’s vigil was an interfaith service, with readings from Jewish traditions, the Koran and Scripture. Monsignor Raymond Weiss of St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church, who would help close the ceremony after the President spoke, had tried to comfort congregants on the night of the tragedy, saying, “There are 20 brighter stars in the heavens.” It was a metaphor that resonated in the community.

When Obama took to the stage, he acknowledged the similarities of the eclectic teachings, each of which reflected a search for answers to the tragedy. “All the world’s religions — so many of them represented here today — start with a simple question: Why are we here? What gives our life meaning?” he said.

“We know our time on this earth is fleeting,” he continued. “We know that we will each have our share of pleasure and pain … We know that no matter how good our intentions, we will all stumble sometimes, in some way. We will make mistakes; we will experience hardships. And even when we’re trying to do the right thing, we know that much of our time will be spent groping through the darkness, so often unable to discern God’s heavenly plans.”

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Obama issued a call to action — of sorts — with a rhetorical question that may well prove to be a rallying argument for new gun-control legislation. “Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?” he asked. And yet it was not an overtly political speech. It was religious in focus and solemn in tone, and for the dozens of people left out in the cold when the school reached capacity, it seemed to provide some measure of the comfort they had been seeking. They huddled together for warmth and reassurance; some held candles, nodding to the President’s message that life is precious but also fleeting.

Finally, the gathered mourners listened between tears and sobs as the President, who earlier in the speech named the school staff members who died in the shooting, began a litany of the 20 children, pausing briefly but meaningfully between each name: “Charlotte, Daniel, Olivia, Josephine, Ana, Dylan, Madeleine, Catherine, Chase, Jesse, James, Grace, Emilie, Jack, Noah, Caroline, Jessica, Benjamin, Avielle, Allison.” Twenty brighter stars in the heavens.

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