Newtown — The nation is not meeting its obligation to children, the president told a town in mourning Sunday evening. We’re not doing enough to keep our children safe, to let them know they’re loved, to give them a chance to live happy lives.
“We will have to change,” President Obama said.
He spoke at an interfaith vigil at Newtown High School, held two days after a gunman forced his way into nearby Sandy Hook Elementary School and killed 20 first graders and six adults before taking his own life. Obama noted that since he’s been president, he’s gone four times to comfort grieving communities in the wake of mass shootings, and that a seemingly endless series of other deadly shootings have happened in the days in between.
“We can’t tolerate this anymore,” Obama said. “These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.”
The president did not offer specifics, but said that in the coming weeks, he would use the powers of his office “to engage my fellow citizens, from law enforcement, mental health professionals, to parents and educators in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this.”
“Because what choice do we have?” he asked. “We can’t accept events like this as routine.”
“Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage? That the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of freedom?”
The interfaith vigil was intended to bring the community together, to show that they were united, Matthew Crebbin, senior minister of the Newtown Congregational Church, said as the service began.
“We will move on,” Gov. Dannel P. Malloy told the audience. “We will never forget. We will in many ways be made stronger for what has transpired, and we will get better.”
The shooter, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, lived in town and graduated from Newtown High. He killed his mother Friday morning, before the rampage at the elementary school he once attended.
Newtown First Selectman E. Patricia Llodra said no one was to blame for the horror visited upon the elementary school, that it was “the angry and desperate act of a confused young man.” But she said the town now faces the burden and challenge of emerging whole, of making sure that the devastated families can heal.
“It is a defining moment for our town, but it does not define us,” she said.
Before the vigil, the president met with first responders and families of victims in six classrooms set aside in the high school. Malloy, who confirmed to some parents on Friday that their children were dead, also met with the families and first responders.
Llodra estimated that the families of 15 victims met with Obama.
Malloy said Obama told him that Friday, when he learned of the shooting, was the most difficult day of his presidency.
At capacity, physically and emotionally
The president’s visit concluded a weekend in which grief and shock were accompanied by more tangible reminders that things were far from normal in the small Fairfield County village — makeshift memorials, clogged traffic on Sandy Hook’s one-lane streets, scores of television satellite trucks, reporters and camera crews from across the world looking for interviews.
By Sunday, local officials had started asking well-wishers to rethink their plans to visit, saying the village was at capacity, physically and emotionally. Some residents had trouble even getting to the store to buy necessities because of the closed roads and media activity, they said.
At St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church, where cameras filmed a packed vigil Friday evening, a sign on Sunday read “no media.”
There were concerns that Sandy Hook school families would be crowded out of the interfaith vigil Sunday night. Town officials urged people who couldn’t be there in person to watch it on television.
The funerals come next.
First graders Noah Pozner and Jack Pinto will be buried Monday.
Noah turned 6 less than a month ago.
Jack was also 6. On Sunday, one of his favorite football players, Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz, wore the boy’s name on his cleats, with the words “my hero.”
Six-year-old Jessica Rekos will be buried Tuesday.
Because there will be so many, the Connecticut Funeral Directors Association is issuing information on the services and has asked that reporters not call the individual funeral homes or families for details.
Sandy Hook Elementary School pupils and teachers will continue the school year in a middle school that had been partially unused in neighboring Monroe.
A world torn apart
The Newtown High School auditorium, which seats 950, was nearly full by 6 p.m. Sunday, an hour before the interfaith vigil was scheduled to begin. Officials opened the school gym as an overflow room with a video monitor and said they expected it would reach its capacity of 1,500.
The staging was simple: A lectern with the presidential seal on it stood in front of the U.S. and Connecticut flags, backed by black curtains. A black-draped table in front of the lectern held 27 candles, one for each victim.
The crowd stood and applauded as first responders entered. Some stopped and hugged members of the audience as they made their way down the aisle.
The program, arranged by the Interfaith Council, included prayers for the lost, emergency responders, children, councilors, caregivers and the community. Speakers represented local Congregational, United Methodist, Episcopal, Lutheran, Roman Catholic and Christian churches, a synagogue, Islamic center and Baha’i faith community. The only other speakers were Obama, Malloy and Llodra.
Obama began his remarks by offering words of solace to the people of Newtown. He said he knew that words alone couldn’t heal their hearts.
“I can only hope it helps for you to know that you’re not alone in your grief, that our world, too, has been torn apart,” he said.
Obama began his call for changes in the nation by speaking personally, as a parent, of the anxiety of realizing that your child, “this most precious, vital part” of yourself, is exposed to the world, to possible mishap or malice.
“Every parent knows there’s nothing we will not do to shield our children from harm, and yet we also know that with that child’s very first step and each step after that, they’re separating from us, that we won’t, that we can’t always be there for them,” he said.
Parents can’t do it alone; keeping them safe and teaching them well can only be done with the help of friends, neighbors, a community, he said.
“This is our first task, caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged,” Obama said.
And in that task, the nation is not doing enough, he concluded.
Obama acknowledged that the causes of violence are complex, and that no single law will prevent every act of violence.
“But that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely we can do better than this,” he said. “If there’s even one step we can take to save another child, or another parent, or another town from the grief that’s visited Tucson and Aurora and Oak Creek and Newtown, and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that, then surely we have an obligation to try.”
“Consoler in Chief”
There were cathartic moments Sunday night in the cavernous high school auditorium.
At the president’s mention by name of the principal, counselor and teachers who died trying to protect the children in their care, the hush of the huge room was broken.
A gasp was heard here. A sob there.
“We know that when danger arrived in the halls of Sandy Hook Elementary, the school’s staff did not flinch, they did not hesitate,” he said. “Dawn Hochsprung and Mary Sherlach, Vicki Soto, Lauren Rousseau, Rachel Davino and Anne Marie Murphy — they responded as we all hope we might respond in such terrifying circumstances — with courage and with love, giving their lives to protect the children in their care.”
When the president read the first of the 20 names of the dead children, the room inhaled.
“Oh, God,” murmured a man next to the press riser. His wife buried her face in her hands. A spasm hit the audience. Heads bobbed, shoulders shook. When he reached the last name, his audience was reaching to seatmates, touching them.
Dr. John Woodall, a psychiatrist who is a lay leader of the Baha’i faith and led one of the prayers, said later that the president had guided the congregation like a grief counselor.
He had confronted them with their loss, acknowledged the tears in their community, and then drew them closer to each other.
Woodall, whose specialty is trauma, had just returned to pastoral Newtown after working with child soldiers in Uganda. He scrawled a note on a page during the president’s talk. The psychiatrist wrote:
“Consoler in chief.”
Catharsis came in the form of applause, first for the first responders who marched into the hall. Later they stood and applauded the governor and president, and finally Llodra.
It was long and loud.
State Rep. Chris Lyddy, D-Newtown, said he felt tinges of pride during the difficult evening. He was at the firehouse on Friday when the governor told parents their children were gone.
“I told the governor later we don’t need a hero, we need a leader,” Lyddy said. “The governor and Pat Llodra have led us.”
An unexpected coda to the emotional night came long after the crowd left. A choir of 11 sang in the foyer of the high school for an audience of police officers gathered to debrief before going off duty.
The African American choir, called NAPS, was from Huntsville, Ala.
They wanted to console.
“We drove all night,” said Ezrica Bennett, 21, who led them.
They wanted to somehow comfort the families, who were out of reach.
So they sang for cops.
They sang in a foreign tongue, an African song in the Tonga language, Bennett said.
The cops stood mute, then they all applauded.
Bennett said the song was one they sang on missions.
She said, “It says we all have been called to do good works.”
A new agenda
The audience included every member of Connecticut’s Congressional delegation. Reps. John Larson and Rosa DeLauro traveled to the state with Obama.
“This one, it haunts me,” Sen. Joseph Lieberman said after passing through metal detectors with his wife, Hadassah.
Rep. Jim Himes said there was little for the elected officials to do in the immediate aftermath. “I don’t know. Be there and comfort as best you can,” he said.
A memorial resolution by Congress is only a start; there must be, at a minimum, a new effort to restrict the ownership of high-capacity magazines, he said.
“I think there is an infusion of energy, at least among the seven of us,” Himes said, referring to the state delegation.
“I think we’re at a turning point, a tipping point,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who was the state attorney general and U.S. attorney before his election to the Senate in 2010.
As he spoke to a reporter, he was approached by Amy Martin, 17, a Newtown High student. She handed him two stickers. Each carried the image of a child’s handprint and the date 12-14-12. She and her friends have been selling them in town to raise money for the victims.
Congresswoman-elect Elizabeth Esty, whose district includes Newtown, arrived at the high school grappling with a transition period suddenly changed by the too-familiar pang of tragedy.
Esty lives in Cheshire, where two home invaders assaulted Dr. William Petit and then killed his wife and their two daughters, a crime that also generated national headlines.
The crime altered the path of her political career. Her opposition to the death penalty played a role in her failure to win re-election in 2010 after one term in the General Assembly. If not defeated, she probably would not have run for Congress.
Now, crime again has riveted her and her constituents.
“It’s refocused my agenda. I know that,” Esty said.
Esty declined to talk about that agenda, and she said she was not entirely sure what it would be.
“I just know it will be different,” she said.