Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Has life in America gone insane?

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
December 17, 2012 -- Updated 1213 GMT (2013 HKT)
Connecticut State Police officers search outside St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church in Newtown, Connecticut, on Sunday, December 16, after a threat prompted authorities to evacuate the building. Investigators found nothing to substantiate the reported threat, a police official said, declining to provide additional details. The church held Sunday services following last week's mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. Connecticut State Police officers search outside St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church in Newtown, Connecticut, on Sunday, December 16, after a threat prompted authorities to evacuate the building. Investigators found nothing to substantiate the reported threat, a police official said, declining to provide additional details. The church held Sunday services following last week's mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
HIDE CAPTION
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
Connecticut school shooting
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene describes parents' heartbreaking wait for kids, many of whom didn't arrive
  • Greene: There are days we want to ask: Has America gone insane?
  • He says the joke of duck-and-cover drills has given way to deadly serious lockdown drills
  • Greene: We hear stories of attacks and what we should do, but it all feels like flailing

Editor's note: CNN contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story," "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen" and "When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams."

(CNN) -- Taking attendance.

That is the phrase used by the parent of a Sandy Hook Elementary School student, describing to a reporter what went on in the firehouse near the school as terrified mothers and fathers arrived in the minutes and hours after the shootings.

The mothers and fathers looked anxiously for children who had lived through the shootings and had been brought into the firehouse. The surviving children and their parents found each other.

But the other parents waited and waited. Their sons and daughters did not appear.

And as the mothers and fathers who had been reunited with their children left the firehouse to go to their homes, a list began to be compiled. On it were the names of the boys and girls who were not accounted for.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

The most heart-shattering and unbearable list that can be imagined.

Those 20 children, as they had left home for school earlier that day, were boys and girls who had favorite television shows, and Christmas wish lists, and jokes that only they and their families understood, and brothers and sisters they knew they'd be having dinner with.

And parents, who now waited in the rapidly emptying Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire and Rescue station.

There are days when it seems fair to ask if part of American life has gone irretrievably insane. A description of the scene inside the elementary school, from a law enforcement official who spoke to a reporter, was that it resembled "a killing field."

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



That is a term of warfare, even of genocide, yet it seems not at all out of place in the context of contemporary domestic news.

"We have lockdown drills," said Mary Ann Jacob, a library clerk at the school. She was explaining to reporters that the teachers, children and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary, like teachers, children and staff at elementary schools all across the United States, were well versed in the advisability of preparing for a day like Friday.

Lockdown drills. More than half-a-century ago, children in elementary schools were trained in so-called duck-and-cover drills: the practice of diving under desks in case of nuclear attack by foreign enemies. Even at the time, it felt kind of comical; few boys and girls really believed that enemy aircraft were going to materialize over Midwestern or Southern or West Coast skies, bearing atomic payloads -- and a schoolroom desk, even in children's eyes, didn't promise much of a shelter against a bomb. American children tended to laugh and kid through the drills.

Today's enemies seem considerably more real, and the children are taught to understand that. "The kids knew the routine," the librarian said.

Thus, with the gunman in the school, she led the boys and girls to the lockdown-drill location: "between some bookcases and a wall, where you can't be seen from any windows."

'Newtown will prevail'
Father: Teacher locked kids in bathroom
Candlelight vigil in Newtown
Piers Morgan, guests debate gun control

And, because they were children, and not soldiers trained in responding to heavy weaponry, when she and her colleagues then led the children to a storeroom and locked the door, she did the only thing she could to calm them as shots rang through the school:

Passed out crayons and paper.

We tend to talk about terrorism in terms of potential attacks from foreign shores, but on weekends like this one we have to acknowledge that the specter of terror seems to have become a part of the very atmosphere of American life. At a movie theater in Colorado, a shopping mall in Oregon, a school in a quiet Connecticut town ... the places change, the news media gather after the bloodshed, the police piece together the sequence of events, the grief counselors mobilize.

And somehow it all feels like flailing. At the end of a weekend like this one, do we feel at all secure that, having learned what we can about what has happened, the knowledge will help to prevent the next day and place of carnage? Of course not.

There is an old movie that is often played on television during the holiday season; its very title bears a message of warmth and safety and affectionate December memories. "Christmas in Connecticut," the movie is called, and the words are meant to comfort and cheer. It was broadcast again nationally late last week as America settled in for what is supposed to be a season of kindness and gentle spirit.

By the weekend in Connecticut, a law enforcement official, preparing to release the identities of the children who died, said that his colleagues were carefully compiling "a formal list of names, birthdates and information."

A resident of Newtown told a television reporter: "Things like this just aren't supposed to happen here."

No, they aren't. And "here" means not just Newtown, not just Connecticut, but this country we all share. It's not supposed to happen here.

Yet it does, again and again. And, in a season of peace, a strong, no-longer-young nation, blessed with so many people of compassion and wisdom and good will, finds itself in a bleak and familiar place -- unable to answer the most basic question of all:

Why?

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 2048 GMT (0448 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1340 GMT (2140 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 2153 GMT (0553 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 2305 GMT (0705 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT