There was a vigil this morning to remember the people who died in Newtown, Connecticut last week. We met at the Christmas tree on the main street at 9 a.m. for a moment of silence and a prayer. I played Amazing Grace on the violin, which went well for the first verse until I looked up and saw people crying and suddenly it got a lot harder to keep my bow from trembling. Children released 26 balloons into the sky and hung ornaments on the Christmas tree with the victims’ names painted on. Then someone read a list of the names of everyone who died and their ages. That’s when it all hit me and I felt the hot, angry tears welling up inside.
There’s tremendous power in a name. By naming the children and teachers who died, they cease to become casualties and we combat the insidious tendency to view death as “collateral damage,” as a friend of mine put it. Instead of the impersonal generalization that using the word “victims” is, giving them names makes it easier to imagine them as someone’s child, friend, grandchild, a little person whose future was cruelly snuffed out. Worst of all, it’s easier to imagine the nightmare of hearing my own little boys’ names added to that list.
Why do we repeat the names of the killer over and over again? I see his name everywhere. That viral post attributed to Morgan Freeman but now deemed a hoax does have it right: “It’s because of the way the media reports it. [These killers] are household names, but do you know the name of a single victim of Columbine?” Saying words and names aloud is a powerful act for us human beings. We internalize the things we say aloud. Even if we condemn the killer for his action, the simple act of repeating his name is going to make him something of a notorious, infamous celebrity — which could be a motive in his decision to do it in the first place. I can’t help but feel he had a plan for wanting his name to be memorialized and we’re just gullible victims ourselves, biting his bait and making him exactly what he wanted to be remembered as.
What if society engaged in a profound act of renunciation and shunning instead? Not that I think shunning is a healthy attitude toward living people — my husband and I have been shunned within our own family and it’s awful — and I’m going against my beliefs in the importance of restorative justice by saying this, but if the killer is already dead himself, there’s nothing to do for him at this point beyond choosing not to let his name be spoken and remembered. Rather, let’s learn the names of the children, teachers, and his mother who died so tragically. Those are the people whose memory deserves our attention.