As a high school history teacher, I look for ways to link the rhetoric of great thinkers to historical events. In the wake of the horrific tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut last Friday that stole the lives of twenty children and seven adults, the words of late British historian Tony Judt, written in the New York Review of Books, best exemplify the crisis this tragedy has exposed.
Judt writes: “…we should all of us perhaps take care when we speak of the problem of evil. For there is more than one sort of banality… there is the banality of overuse—the flattening, desensitizing effect of seeing or saying or thinking the same thing too many times until we have numbed our audience and rendered them immune to the evil we are describing. And that is the banality—or ‘banalization’—that we face today.”
As I read about the tragedy in Connecticut, I couldn’t help but think of Judt’s definition of banality and its application to evil. Initially, while reading the headline announcing the recent tragedy, a lump caught in my throat. But, scanning the article, I found myself breezing by words like death, troopers, classroom, and lockdown. Why did these words, in this context, not shock me anymore? Why was I not visibly shaken at the first-hand accounts of this ordeal?
If Judt’s words ring true, it’s because America is becoming numb to these types of violent events, which have become almost commonplace in America’s schools, malls, and workplaces. Tragedies like the one that tore through an otherwise peaceful Connecticut community shock and disturb people, but only for a short time. They don’t stick with us anymore.
The nation will mourn the loss of the innocent people who died so senselessly last Friday morning. Yet in a week, the headlines will change and we will forget about this tragedy until it happens again. It most likely will never appear in a history textbook. So if we concede that history can help teach lessons, the omission of Columbine or Virginia Tech or Sandy Hook in our historical discourse will offer this and future generations nothing to ponder or learn from.
Why are we numb to these acts of violence? Why do we devote hours of time covering and thinking about these events when they first occur, only to forget about them? The current generation of teenagers has not heard about the events at Columbine or Virginia Tech except when we reference them after a school shooting.
Look in an American history textbook and see if there is a reference to the Columbine or Virginia Tech shootings. Why aren’t they discussed like the events of 9/11 or Kent State? Haven’t they shaped generations of young adults? Haven’t we reacted to the potential of school violence with strong measures, both politically and financially? These events do matter to us yet we fail to understand them and, more importantly, we’ve grown to expect them.
To understand how current and future generations can confront this tragedy and similar ones that preceded it, we can look to Judt. He would caution us as a society to resist the temptation to view these acts as isolated and the growing norm and, instead, commit ourselves to addressing them as interconnected historical events that deeply affect the very core of our cultural fabric.
Rob Heubeck teaches U.S. and European history at Gilman School in Baltimore.