What do you know about Chardon, Ohio? I have spent the past week putting this question to my friends and neighbors in Newtown, the place I have called home, off and on, since 1968. I asked my contacts, from the whip-smart hedge fund manager and graduate of Yale Law School to the big-hearted leader of a philanthropic foundation. Not one had heard of Chardon.
Shamefully, neither had I until two weeks ago, when I stumbled across a card sent to the Sandy Hook Elementary School. My 12-year-old son and I were combing through a dozen boxes, from among the tens of thousands of cards and letters that have arrived at our town hall. We were looking for artwork we could use to decorate the office walls of Sandy Hook Promise, the nonprofit I co-founded with fellow citizens to help our community heal and eventually find its voice on matters related to eliminating gun violence
The card is simple – one page of white paper, folded and adorned with a valentine on the front. Inside, another heart, with a message in red marker: “Stay Strong + Stay United. In Chardon We Are One Heartbeat.” At first glance, there was nothing that distinguished this letter from the millions of others carrying similarly lovely sentiments. That was until I read the blue cursive writing inside.
“Ten months after our school shooting at Chardon High School on February 27, 2012, we are still healing and supporting each other. We still have the red ribbons tied around trees, up on houses and various places in town.” Gutted and embarrassed that Chardon had not registered in the least, I turned to the Internet.
It turns out that on that day in the school cafeteria, 17-year-old T.J. Lane fired 10 shots from a .22-caliber semiautomatic Ruger handgun, a weapon he obtained from his uncle’s home the night before. Demetrius Hewlin, 16; Daniel Parmentor, 16; and Russell King, 17, died from their wounds. Three other teenagers were injured. (On Tuesday, Lane pleaded guilty to multiple homicide charges.)
How could it be that none of my unusually plugged-in friends, acquaintances or contacts — with their top-shelf educations and access to information — recalled what happened at Chardon, whose grim one-year anniversary was Wednesday?
More than anything, this seemingly collective failure to recognize Chardon’s tragedy embodies what the late US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan railed against in a classic 1993 essay on the subject of violence. “The amount of deviant behavior in American society,” Moynihan wrote in The American Scholar, has increased beyond the levels the community can ‘afford to recognize’ and that, accordingly, we have been re-defining deviancy so as to exempt much conduct previously stigmatized, and also quietly raising the ‘normal’ level in categories where behavior is now abnormal by any earlier standard.”
The definition of deviancy, of course, has been the subject of much cultural warfare. But when it comes to violence, Moynihan’s warning is without controversy. It would appear that we have become inured not just to the awful shootings that take place every day in our cities but even to those exceptional acts of mass violence in seemingly peaceful hamlets like Chardon, and now Newtown.
Indeed, as I learned more about Chardon, I thought: What if a year ago, I had acted differently when those three boys, not much older than my own sons, were gunned down at their school? What if even a slice of the efforts I’ve dedicated to Sandy Hook Promise had been expended last February? What if a group like ours had formed in Chardon?
Could we have changed the course of events by asking for greater school safety measures; questioning the efficacy of mental health and wellness programs for teenagers and young adults; giving parents more tools to handle the most important undertaking of their lives; or urging legislators to insist on more robust gun regulations? If I hadn’t defined deviancy downward such that Chardon made so little difference to my consciousness a year ago, could I have helped prevent the massacre in my town.
Tussling with hypothetical questions like these is pointless. We can’t beat ourselves up for what we did not do. But as a nation, it is clear we must change. Twenty beautiful children never got off their yellow school bus to go home on December 14. Six of their teachers never came home to their families. There is no excuse for inaction.
(Rob Cox is a co-founder of Sandy Hook Promise and global editor of Thomson Reuters Breakingviews, the financial commentary service. This column previously appeared on Reuters.com and in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer on Wednesday, February 27, the first anniversary of the Chardon killings.)