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
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1229 GMT (2029 HKT)
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1737 GMT (0137 HKT)
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1256 GMT (2056 HKT)
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1708 GMT (0108 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1825 GMT (0225 HKT)
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT