Editor's note: The following was written on December 15, the morning after the shootings. At the bottom I have added more recent reflections.
At the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, our culture may have hit a new low. Twenty-seven dead, most of them first graders, at a time when classrooms are decorated for the holidays and the teachers are instructing students on the various multicultural expressions of peace and joy.
The incident took place, once again, where we least expect it — in a large, nondescript school in a placid, wealthy, suburban town. The young perpetrator, Adam Lanza, drove to his destination just like everybody else in town. This in a community that, if mostly sprawling in character, at least promises security, a good upbringing, and a quality education for its youth.
We flash back to the other notorious shooting sprees in our recent and not-so-distant past:
• The Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shootings in July 2012, left a dozen dead and 58 wounded. This senseless crime took place in a huge suburban shopping mall where patrons were viewing the moderately violent movie (by today's standards) Batman, wherein the superhero saves the citizens from sickos like the mall shooter. This mall, particularly unlucky, was also the location of another random shooting in 2005 that left 1 dead and 2 wounded. Meanwhile, a change of name for the mall failed to change its luck.
• The 2011 killings in a Tucson, Arizona, suburban shopping center left 6 dead and 13 wounded, including the permanently disabled Congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords, up to then a strong supporter of gun rights. Stories afterwards mentioned the impersonal, sprawling, generic nature of the Tucson landscape as a potential factor in the violence.
• The 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, where 32 students and others were killed and 17 wounded. A large state university in a small town, Virginia Tech is the kind of place where suburban parents send their children for a safe education. The shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, was raised in a quite, exurban part of Fairfax County, outside of Washington, DC.
• Two students killed 13 and wounded 21 at the 1999 Columbine massacre in Littleton, Colorado. The site is a sprawling high school off an arterial road in a middle-class suburb of Denver. A lot of ink was spilled over the alienated suburban youth culture in Littleton.
• Similarly, at Thurston High School in suburban Springfield, Oregon, 4 were killed and 22 wounded by an alienated youth in 1998.
• The Luby's Massacre at a chain restaurant on a suburban commercial strip in Killeen, Texas, killed 23 people in a storm of bullets fired from automatic weapons in 1991. Luby's is the kind of place where grandmas meet for lunch and the local high school lacrosse team has a celebratory dinner.
• The 1984 McDonald's massacre in San Ysidro, California, a San Deigo suburb, again on a commercial strip arterial, killed 21 and wounded 18 in the most American of chain restaurants — the place of Happy Meals and play apparatuses.
What do all of these tragedies have in common? In each case, a gunman, with not even a bad reason to kill the victims, simply snapped. There was no money involved, no power struggle, no political point to be made. These killings seem to thrive in the blandest of places — the sprawling landscape of suburban America.
We live in a gun-happy, media-soaked, suburban culture that breeds random violence. Could it come to your town next? Yes, but that's unlikely. Even so, you will be affected by the growing paranoia and security measures put in place that erode trust and separate one from another in our weird world.
Reflections on Tuesday, December 18: There's no way to link a tragedy like Sandy Hook directly to the built environment. But such shocking events do shake our faith in the safety provided in the physical separation of suburbia. Further, our sprawling, poorly planned communities are a physical manifestation of a breakdown in the creation of a civil society. This has occurred in both suburbs and cities — with highways and urban renewal destroying many inner-city neighborhoods in the middle of the last century. When we build cities and towns that lack sustainability and character and foster isolation, we are sending the message that our communities and people lack value. For many reasons, not necessarily or primarily to prevent tragedies like Sandy Hook, we need to send a different message.
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