12/19/2012 08:42 EST | Updated 02/17/2013 05:12 EST

Why Has Sandy Hook Touched More Than Syria?


It's hard to sort out one's emotions when listening to the media reports about the murders of the children and teachers in Connecticut. Some are undoubtedly universal -- sadness at the waste of young lives, horror at the magnitude of the killing, empathy for the parents and relatives, relief that it wasn't your kids.

For me, there are other emotions as well. Irritation at the television media -- why call the killings "unspeakable" and then go on to speak about them over and over, with a cliché in every sentence? And why call them "unimaginable" when we watch movies and play video games all the time featuring mass killings -- often by the player or the hero.

Being a strong anti-gun advocate, I also feel a sense of "oh no, not again" and a glimmer of optimism that maybe this will spur action. (That is, until I hear the politician who says that we should arm all the principals of U.S. schools so they can shoot potential killers on the spot.)

Being a US citizen, I can't help feeling smug about choosing to live in Canada where the gun culture is not so alive and well, along with a sense of despair about how deeply entrenched it is in the US.

But then, being an observer of brands and myths and icons, I wonder why this event had such a powerful impact on me, and on the rest of the world. Of course, it's a lot of people, and mainly children. But why is the killing of "innocent" children so much worse than the killing of thousands of people caught in the violence in Syria? Or young urban males shooting each other every day all over the US? It can only be that we feel those other victims are somehow partly to blame for getting killed.

But poor people who cannot afford to leave dangerous surroundings can hardly be said to have caused their own suffering.

The non-US media have all been pointing out how many murders occur each year in the US (somewhere between 8000 and 10,000, depending on the source). Obviously, most of them are not mass murders. Many reporters have also pointed out that guns kill more people in the US by suicide than by murder each year.

Symbols are powerful. Animal charities will send you a stuffed polar bear in exchange for a contribution. Third world charities will let you buy a goat or a well for a village, or "adopt" a child. In fact, your contribution goes towards funding whatever priorities the charity has set. But the charities all know that we will give more if we can imagine the personal use to which our dollars are put.

The US gun culture is based on deeply held beliefs about individuality and self-defence and heroes with guns. John Wayne and the Marlboro Man are powerful symbols. The killing of small children in Connecticut gives us something equally powerful to set up against those symbols.

The events in Connecticut are not unimaginable. They help us imagine what happens to children and their parents and their older brothers and sisters every day who are killed by guns. It's unfortunate that only the killing of tiny children in a white, middle class small town can still surprise us and can call forth our grief and resolve. But we are all guilty if we let our resolve slowly dissipate as the event fades into memory.

Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting