Monday, December 14, 2020

Eight Years Since Sandy Hook

In memory of the victims of the Sandy Hook massacre, read a brief excerpt from From a Taller Tower: The Rise of the American Mass Shooter by Seamus McGraw, out April 2021.

From Chapter 3

To Kill the Last Killer

There was nothing in his demeanor to suggest that he was being anything less than forthright. He had answered every question precisely the way cops are trained to: be succinct, stick to the facts, and above all, report only what you observed. No matter how horrible.

The investigators asked again. “You never went into the classroom?”

“I took the perimeter,” he said.

They knew there was no point in pressing him further. He wasn’t lying, if lying means that one is consciously trying to deceive. At least he wasn’t lying to them.

One or two of the other cops who had been there that day might have tried, intentionally or unintentionally, to mislead the investigators in ways that would not materially affect the outcome of the probe. Guys who might have hesitated a moment or two longer than they should have before going in may have omitted that detail in their reports, for instance. Almost every guy wants to imagine that he’s a hero. Even heroes sometimes need to believe that they’re more heroic than they are. You do enough after-action police reports, and you learn to expect a certain amount of self-image bias, and you learn to calibrate for it.

But this was different. This hard-bitten veteran cop had been one of the first officers on the scene. He had been part of one of the four-man teams that had burst into Sandy Hook Elementary School even before the full scope of the atrocity was fully understood, when all they knew was that at least one gunman with at least one semiautomatic rifle was loose in the school, and he was shooting children. His team hadn’t hesitated. They rushed toward one of the two classrooms where most of the killings had taken place with one mission: stop the killing, then stop the dying.

They hadn’t gotten there fast enough to do either. By the time they entered the classroom the massacre had already ended, and the killer had already blown his own brains out. The mass killing had lasted just eleven minutes from its bloody start to its bloody finish. They did not know that, of course, when they stormed into the building, passing the bodies of two slain adults and a wounded woman as they rushed down the hall and into the classrooms.

There are no words for what they saw that day. Children, twenty of them, not one of them older than seven, had been shot at close range by a killer armed with a Bushmaster rifle and hundreds of rounds of ammunition designed to inflict the most grotesque wounds to grown men on a battlefield somewhere.

And this cop had seen the worst of it. The three other members of his team, all veteran cops themselves, men who had known and trained alongside this man for years, all swore that he was right there beside them, that he did exactly what they did and saw exactly what they saw.

“I took the perimeter,” he insisted to the investigators.

That wasn’t true. But he wasn’t lying. At least not to them.

How do you measure a horror like the December 14, 2012, massacre at Sandy Hook?

Those who gaze at crystals will tell you with absolute conviction that the human soul weighs twenty-one grams, or so a physician and amateur researcher concluded in 1907 in a roundly debunked study.1

They’re wrong, of course. It’s far heavier than that. The weight of the souls of the twenty children and seven adults killed on December 14, 2012, was enough to bring most of this country to its knees, at least for a few days following the massacre. It was enough to bring a president to tears.

You can count bullets or bodies. You can measure blood spatters to the micron. But what is the measurement of horror?

Here’s one metric. A veteran cop, a man who by temperament and training is supposed to be steeled to horror, is so overwhelmed by the atrocity he witnessed that his brain simply shuts down, refuses to record it, and replaces it instead with a false memory.

“I took the perimeter,” he insists.

That’s the measure of a horror that eclipses all the horrors that came before it.

And that, say researchers, analysts, and the cops who have studied the Sandy Hook massacre and other mass shootings, may have been precisely what the murderer had in mind as he plotted the atrocity in Newtown, Connecticut.

1. “Soul Has Weight, Physician Thinks,” New York Times, March 11, 1907.

Seamus McGraw is a journalist and frequent contributor to the New York Times op-ed page, as well as to the Huffington Post, Playboy, Popular Mechanics, and Fox Latino. He is the author of The End of Country: Dispatches from the Frack Zone, Betting the Farm on a Drought: Stories from the Front Lines of Climate Change, and A Thirsty Land: The Fight for Water in Texas.

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