Like so many Americans, I watched Wednesday’s insurrection in a state of surprise and disappointment. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who feared for the vitality and resilience of the republic. But also being a citizen of the town of Newtown, Connecticut, where I lived on Dec. 14, 2012, when a gunman breached the locked doors of Sandy Hook School and killed 20 first graders and six of their educators, I probably had some unusual thoughts, too.
Many were practical, logistical—about who was sheltering where and how they were locking down the building (answer: there was no real “they” and lawmakers were rushed to the cloakrooms or trapped in the balconies).
And when I heard that members of Congress were sheltering in place, many together, determined to return to the chamber that evening to finish their business, I wondered if their time together would change them as my own experience changed me.
When Congress reconvened to complete their work, I saw their faces were newly familiar. To my eye, their faces had a subtly different look. I recognize it from the grocery store and the bus stop. They’re the faces of those who’ve had a close brush with gun violence, who’ve been quickly locked down, told to shelter in place, newly proximate to the unknown in all its chaos and terror. In many ways, they’re the faces of my own sons, one of whom was locked down at a neighboring elementary school to Sandy Hook on Dec. 14, the other who has endured regular lockdown and active shooter drills since kindergarten.
I’ve found that those who’ve experienced the strange extended quality of time and heightened perception of lockdown describe similar experiences to those of soldiers in combat. Hours that go by in an instant, and seconds that seem to stretch into hours. Indeed some of the most poignant and articulate statements from Congress Wednesday night came from members who had served downrange. A New York Times article describing the events as they unfolded on the House floor isolated the experience of two who’d seen combat. “‘I thought we’d have to fight our way out,’ said Representative Jason Crow, Democrat of Colorado and a former Army Ranger, who found himself captive in the House chamber.” A photograph of Crow reaching out to comfort a fellow lawmaker, Susan Wild (D-PA), as she laid on the floor of the House balcony with her mask down and a hand over her heart clearly trying to slow her breathing, is now part of the calcium of our Democracy. The same article describes Ruben Gallego (D-AZ), also a combat veteran, below Crow on the House floor, who “jumped on the arm rests of chairs and began directing members to move calmly and quickly from the chamber.”
I immediately thought of first grader Jesse Lewis, who died at Sandy Hook while saving some of his classmates by alerting them that they had time to run because the shooter was reloading. Jesse indeed had the heart of a warrior, and paid a price none in Congress were asked to pay on Wednesday—but their experience of sheltering in place should be acknowledged as one common to our nation’s schoolchildren. Hopefully now it will be seen as a totally and wholly unacceptable price to pay for any so-called freedom.
Speaking of war, recently I ran into a classmate from my Vassar years who didn’t know I lived in Sandy Hook on the day of the shooting. He, a photographer, was at the time of the shooting a news editor making assignments. After a moment when he wasn’t sure he should say it, he told me he sent seasoned war photographers to Sandy Hook and they came back more shaken than he’d seen them after any trip to a theater of war. All I could do was nod. It took me weeks to accept that kind of assessment, to take in what he was telling me—that for those photographers my town was the site of terror, and I was making my children’s home in the aftermath of that terror, but I accept that now. So does my congressional delegation.
It changes you. It does. We saw that change in action on the floor of both chambers when they reconvened, and I don’t mean in the act of certification. I mean in the moments lawmakers take to accept their own vulnerability and complicity, to assess how this experience affects them going forward. There are hopeful signs. In the Senate, we heard Republican Mitt Romney’s voice crack and his composure slowly return as he mentioned his 25 grandchildren and the time it took for him to let them know their grandfather was all right.
I know that wait—mine was 90 seconds as I learned it wasn’t my son’s school but another nearby—and I have gone through many “close calls” since then as our town has endured lockdowns as a result of copycat crank calls, hoaxsters, and regular precautions. Each time it’s almost unendurable.
The members of Congress are among the lucky ones now, the ones who survived a violent incident sheltering in place and lived to have the chance to make the changes that determine the strength and quality of our republic. My wish for each of them is that you let this experience of threat change who you are and what you are willing to tolerate. For yourselves and for your children, and all of ours.