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
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1938 GMT (0338 HKT)
SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 04: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks the sidelines prior to the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on September 4, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Martha Pease says the NFL commissioner shouldn't be judge and jury on player wrongdoing.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
It's time for a much needed public reckoning over U.S. use of torture, argues Donald P. Gregg.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1225 GMT (2025 HKT)
Peter Bergen says UK officials know the identity of the man who killed U.S. journalists and a British aid worker.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1128 GMT (1928 HKT)
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1241 GMT (2041 HKT)
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2211 GMT (0611 HKT)
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2218 GMT (0618 HKT)
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1721 GMT (0121 HKT)
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1730 GMT (0130 HKT)
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT