Trying to Report on the Sandy Hook Shooting
What do you say about a dead six-year-old? That’s what I was trying to figure out when I headed up to Newtown—the site of the most infamous shooting in years—earlier this week. Almost every resident I spoke to Monday reported some kind of connection...
The house where Adam Lanza, the perpetrator of the shootings, lived.
What do you say about a dead six-year-old?
I went to Newtown, Connecticut on Monday with that question foremost in my mind. Almost every resident I spoke to there reported some kind of connection with the massacre. Caitlyn Hydeck, who sat next to me in a restaurant, said Olivia Engel and Charlotte Bacon, both six, had been students in the local theater program where she works as a dance instructor. “They were just happy little girls,” Hydeck recalled, at a loss to offer any further description. And really, what else could she say? I felt bad for even asking. Olivia was so tiny, and adorable.
When I arrived, TV crews had packed the town center, recording segments with the Honan Funeral Home in the background. One cameraperson wept. Inside, a viewing for Jack Pinto, also six, was underway. Men surrounded his small casket, wailing in grief; as I approached, I realized it was open. I hadn’t been ready for the sight of Jack’s lifeless face, which is now etched in my memory, presumably for life. On the radio that morning, I’d heard he liked swimming and the New York Giants—a woefully inadequate obituary, it would seem. But what more is there to say?
When Barack Obama read aloud the victims’ names on Sunday night at Newtown High School, his utterance of “Olivia” unexpectedly did me in. I worked as a camp counselor for a summer, and there were so many little girls named Olivia. If one had been killed, I wouldn’t have known what to say either, other than that they were happy little girls. As Obama read the names, I was struck by how distinctly American they sounded. This somehow compounded the sorrow: Catherine Hubbard, James Mattioli, Madeline Hsu, Noah Pozner, Ana Marquez-Greene...
At the restaurant, I asked Caitlyn if she had considered the fact that her hometown will henceforth be associated with mass murder of children, in the same way that Littleton, Colorado, is associated with Columbine. She said she’d thought about it some, but didn’t really know what to say. “We’re definitely going to be known for this forever,” she told me, trailing off.
Later, I drove to the house where Adam Lanza, the perpetrator, lived with his mother. Police were stationed outside; investigators went in and out the front door. The house is huge and palatial, like every other house in Sandy Hook, a very affluent village within Newtown. One officer told me that neighbors had requested they keep media off their property. When I momentarily stepped on someone’s lawn, a TV guy shouted, “Better be careful! They’re gonna kick you out of here.”
Massive news vans clogged Sandy Hook, causing traffic jams. Apparently dozens and dozens of networks all needed their own “live shot” from the scene, which is not only a poor use of resources, but totally obnoxious. People were trying to cope with trauma—they didn’t need to be badgered by hordes of idiot journalists. I asked Maurice Dubois, “reporting” live on the scene for CBS 2 New York, if he felt there was an excess of TV news media in town. “That could be said,” he conceded, but declined to elaborate.
One 24-year-old resident told me that journalists had even gotten in the faces of mourners attempting to enter and exit Saint Rose’s church. Consequently, two signs declaring “NO PRESS” were affixed in front of the church Monday, and a cop was on the lookout for anyone who might try to violate the injunction. I saw a total of five signs with similar messages in different parts of town. The resident who mentioned the harassment identified himself only as Thomas, citing past experiences in which reporters had misrepresented him. The media’s conduct so far was “disgusting,” he said.
Thomas told me he’d been friendly acquaintances with the perpetrator’s older brother Ryan since they both attended Sandy Hook Elementary School, where the shooting occurred. The two weren’t close, but would hang out occasionally at the diner and such. He never even knew Ryan had a sibling until now. “I feel bad,” Thomas said. “Ryan’s name is scarred for life.” As for Adam’s background, he told me, “no one wants to talk about that.”
He added that there were a fair number of hunters and other gun owners in the Newtown area, which is more sparsely-populated and rural-ish than one might expect of Connecticut. “But Obama was right,” said Thomas, who himself owns a semi-automatic. “I’d gladly give up my guns, if it would stop all this.”
The small downtown section of Sandy Hook had become a memorial area, with people congregating at the big Christmas tree and leaving items in remembrance. Quinn Murphy, a ninth grader at Newtown High School, was there. What else should the outside world know about Newtown, I asked her? I had asked the same question of several people, and they all responded basically as Quinn did: “Before this, it was just... a nice town. Nothing really happened here.” She didn’t know what else to say.
Michael Tracey is a journalist based in Brooklyn, New York.