The number of victims at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
26 angels inspiring 26 acts of kindness.
Except there were 28 souls lost that day.
Because I count the mother of the shooter and even the shooter himself.
After much reflection and some passage of time, I wanted to post about the number 26 and the other two. Of course, I am not a family member of any of the victims and would totally understand and respect if they couldn't bear to mention their loved ones in the same breath as the shooter. Just as families of victims at Columbine, Aurora, Virginia Tech, even Oklahoma City and September 11 focus on the lost innocents and not the criminal perpetrators, so it is right that the families of Newtown do, too.
But I am speaking of and to those of us who are unrelated bystanders, witnesses you may say, of this tragedy, for whom this loss while intense and painful is not personal. For it is we who are spared the emotional trauma of the shocking loss of a loved one, we who have the distance from the tragedy needed to reflect upon it at large. As a religious person, following the principles of Unitarian Universalism which focus on the inherent worth and dignity of all people as well as the inter-connectedness of all life, I cannot forget the shooter or his mother. And while the majority of my thoughts and prayers and tears are with and for the lost first graders and their teachers and all of their families, friends, and community, as well as with the first responders, I have also been thinking of the other two.
I cannot blame the shooter's mother for her own death nor for the actions of her son, even if the guns were hers and she knew of his mental health challenges. As for her son, about whom I know very little, I do recognize how he must have been so alienated from the human community and from his own worth and dignity to take the lives of children, teachers, his mother, and himself. While this in no way explains, excuses, or condones his actions, it allows me to feel compassion for him and for her and for their family and friends.
And compassion is what we need right now, for the victims, the survivors, and ourselves, as we begin to heal and especially as we begin to engage with the issues that contributed to this tragedy such as gun control and mental health treatment. Separating the shooter and his mother as the "other," as evil, as undeserving of compassion, even as somehow inhuman, only serves to create an illusion of safety, albeit one that we, especially parents, would very much like to embrace right now. If he is an example of evil, we can condemn, hate, even erase him. Then we do not have to address the very human circumstances, within all of us to some degree, that led to this tragedy; we do not have to recognize or admit our own complicity in this violence, however minimal or indirect via gun and healthcare laws, media and culture, etc.
But it is through compassion for all of the lost souls, all 28 of them that day, that we as both individuals and as a society will perhaps come one step closer to healing from this tragedy and to preventing another similar one.