When every channel on television is showing aerial images of a scene in which blue lights are flashing on the ground below, when black-and-yellow crime scene tape flutters around nondescript buildings, often in a seemingly idyllic small-town environment, most Americans know that they are about to watch yet another horrific news story. On Friday, that story came from the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where 20 young children were killed, as well as six adults, killed by a young man who had gone on a rampage and then turned one of his guns on himself.
He had come to the school shortly after 9:30 a.m. on Friday, armed with two pistols, a Glock 10 mm and a Sig Sauer 9 mm, a high-powered .223-caliber, semi-automatic AR-15 Bushmaster rifle used to kill most of his victims as well as a fourth weapon that was found in his car outside the school. After his arrival, witnesses say they heard a long series of what they described as "plop-plop-plop" noises, possibly up to 100 gunshots, mixed with the sounds of screaming, crying and falling bodies.
Before going on his rampage, he had shot and killed his mother at her home, where he was living. His mother had worked at the school's kindergarten. In a hail of bullets, the gunman killed the principal, the school psychologist and 18 children mostly between the ages of six and seven, some in his mother's classroom. Two other children later died of their wounds in the hospital. The murderer, who police identified as 20-year-old Adam Lanza, also died. He turned his gun on himself as the first emergency responders closed in on the scene. The guns had been registered in his mother's name. Lanza would have been too young to register the weapons in his own name. Indeed, the nightmarish story reads like a dark venture into the abyss.
"Heartbreaking" became the word of the day, as hardened newscasters fought to hold back their tears. In Newtown, in the eye of the hurricane and in the silence following the shots, children who had survived told the media what they had heard, seen and experienced. They talked about how they were afraid of the "loud banging noises," and about hearing someone in the auditorium who shouted: "Don't shoot." Outside the school, the small-town world of Newtown, a city of 27,000 people, was divided into groups of overjoyed parents and the devastated mothers and fathers who had just lost their children. One woman told CNN: "We live in a nice town. Sandy Hook is a nice school. This sort of thing doesn't happen here."
A letter from Pope Benedict XVI, in which he expressed his condolences and sought to comfort the people of Newtown, was read out loud at a church service on Friday evening.
It was a national tragedy, especially happening as it did now, shortly before Christmas. The social networks have become blackboards of mourning, filled with prayers, expressions of shock and good wishes to the victims' families.
President Barack Obama, who had been briefed at 10:30 a.m., less than an hour after the killings, lost his voice for several seconds a number of times during a press conference on the shootings, wiping tears from the corners of his eyes. It was a devastating picture.
'We Can't Accept Events Like this As Routine'
"I know there's not a parent in America who doesn't feel the same overwhelming grief that I do," the president said. "The majority of those who died today were children. Our hearts are broken." America has "endured too many of these tragedies in the past few years," Obama continued. "These children are our children. And we're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics." It sounded as if the old American debate over tougher gun laws were about to be reopened. But commentators are skeptical.
The president followed up at a memorial service for the victims in Newtown on Sunday by again hinting he might take more assertive steps on weapons control. "No single law, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society," he said. "But that can't be an excuse for inaction." In the coming weeks, he added, "I'll use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens ... in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this. Because what choice do we have? We can't accept events like this as routine. Are we really prepared to say that we're powerless in the face of such carnage? That the politics are too hard?"
Only a few minutes had passed since the gunshots were fired when Philip Gourevitch, a well-known writer for the New Yorker, vented his anger. Commenting first on Twitter and then in a longer Blog entry, he reviled American politicians as cowards for being incapable of standing up to the powerful gun lobby. "If I say our lawmakers & gun laws are killing us I'll be told now ain't the time," Gourevitch tweeted.
An Issue that Can Decide Elections
In fact, words like Gourevitch's are often American politicians' first reaction to yet another bloodbath. Little is as sacred in America as the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which many Americans believe establishes the right to bear arms. Even the Connecticut State Constitution clearly states: "Every citizen has a right to bear arms in defense of himself and the state." Connecticut is so generous in its interpretation of the Second Amendment that guns are almost as accessible as tennis rackets. The laws are written in precisely the way the National Rifle Association (NRA) wants them to be.
The NRA has about 4.3 million members and an annual budget of about $250 million (€190 million) -- enough to pay for plenty of lobbying activity. The organization and its supporters have managed to turn gun ownership into a symbol of the state of freedom in America. So far, hardly any US president has dared to fundamentally challenge this position.
Former Democratic President John F. Kennedy was an NRA member, as was former Republican President Ronald Reagan. It wasn't until 1993 that significant gun-control legislation was passed, when then President Bill Clinton signed the so-called Brady Bill, which required gun buyers to submit to an FBI background check. But some of the bill's provisions were watered down only five years later.
Politicians know that the issue of gun ownership can decide elections in key states like Ohio or Pennsylvania. "I'm not going to take away your guns," then presidential candidate Obama said in 2008. Although he cautiously advocated tighter restrictions on gun buyers and a ban on especially dangerous assault weapons, Obama also gave gun owners more freedom when he signed laws that allowed people to carry them on trains. Just a few days before the Newtown massacre, the Republican-controlled state legislature in Michigan enacted a new law that allows guns in classrooms.
This helps to explain why the White House's initial reaction to the tragedy in Connecticut on Friday was so predictable. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said that it was a day of mourning and not "a day for discussion of the usual Washington policy debates" on gun control.
The New Yorker wrote these disillusioned words about the response to the Connecticut shootings: "This is the way that we deal with such incidents in the U.S. -- we acknowledge them; we are briefly shocked by them; then we term it impolite to discuss their implications, and to argue about them. At some point, we will have to stop putting it off, stop pretending that doing so is the proper, respectful thing. It's not either. It's cowardice."
A Shocking Chain of American Massacres
But as long as no one is willing to stop putting off the debate, and as long as no president has the courage to overturn the country's liberal gun laws, more and more links will be added to the long, shocking chain of American school massacres. The United States has seen many of these rampages throughout its more recent history. There were a few in the 1980s, but the mass media didn't start seriously paying attention to them until the 1990s, when they entered the discussion in conjunction with the public debate over gun laws and the glorification of violence in action films and video games.
The first school massacre reported in the media worldwide was a shooting spree by 14-year-old Michael Carneal at Heath High School in West Paducah, Kentucky, in December 1997. He had smuggled a shotgun and a rifle into the school by wrapping them in a blanket, as well as concealing a Ruger MK II .22 caliber pistol in his backpack. Carneal put earplugs into his ears and then killed three female students and wounded five others. After firing eight shots, he put down the pistol and turned himself in to the principal.
A similar massacre that took place at Westside Middle School near Jonesboro, Arkansas, on March 24, 1998, triggered the first broader debate on the influence of video games. In the Jonesboro incident the killers, two boys aged 11 and 13, also surrendered, but only after they had killed four fellow students and a teacher and wounded 10 other students.
Probably the most brutal mass murder ever to occur at a school happened at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Twelve students and a teacher died and 21 were injured when, on April 20, 1999, 18-year-old Eric Harris and 17-year-old Dylan Klebold stormed the school, wearing masks and carrying guns and explosives, killing themselves afterwards.
The school killing that claimed the most casualties to date was committed by Seung-Hui Cho at Virginia Tech University, on April 16, 2007. He killed 32 people and then committed suicide. Cho had a severe anxiety disorder and was in therapy.
Newtown, Connecticut, will go down in the gruesome ranking of school massacres as the second-worst since Virginia Tech. And as is always the case when a mass murderer strikes, the search has begun for clues that could have warned authorities of the impending tragedy.
A Quiet, Introverted Young Man
Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old killer, was apparently a very quiet, introverted young man who usually answered questions with very few words. He didn't take the divorce of his parents, Nancy and Peter Lanza, very well at all, say neighbors and relatives. According to one neighbor, Lanza was also ill. Ryan Kraft, who lived next door, told the Washington Post that Lanza had been taking medication for a form of autism.
Frank Robertz, head of the Berlin Institute for Violence Prevention and Applied Criminology, has examined profiles of spree killers worldwide, including that of the perpetrator who went on a rampage at a secondary school in the southwestern German town of Winnenden in 2009, killing 16 people. According to Robertz, most perpetrators had a history of attempted suicides and depression. And in most cases, he adds, they had carefully planned how to carry out their violent fantasies.
"You have so-called normal violent fantasies, which are not intended to be realized because there is too much at stake," Robertz told PBS. "If a kid has good social bonds, good attachment to other people, and a good involvement in society -- all that stuff that prevents them from realizing such a deed. But if you do not have these bonds -- these protective factors -- you are more likely to do a grave deed."
Sometimes spree killers are also inspired by others who preceded them. Before going on a rampage at Virginia Tech, Seung-Hui Cho made a video in which he praised the perpetrators of the Columbine massacre as "martyrs." In the video, which he sent to the NBC television network during the incident, Cho said: "You had a hundred billion chances and ways to have avoided today. You forced me into a corner and gave me only one option. Now you have blood on your hands that will never wash off."
The Internet Rumor Mill
The Newtown massacre also shines a glaring spotlight on the role the Internet plays in fueling the spread of farfetched rumors.
The killings had hardly occurred when a Ryan Lanza from Hoboken, New Jersey, was being named on Facebook as the killer. Suddenly the link to his Facebook page was everywhere, accompanied by the basest of pejoratives.
Before long, the supposed mass murderer had posted "It wasn't me; I was at work," on his own Facebook page. Nevertheless, CNN and other television networks had already mistakenly reported that Ryan Lanza was the shooter. The same witch-hunt occurred on Twitter.
It continued for a long time, as users discussed whom to believe in a massive rumor mill, to which they themselves were constantly contributing. Then a video appeared on YouTube showing a thin young man with brown hair and glasses, named Ryan Lanza. In the video, Ryan Lanza talks about the political influence of TV programs like "The Daily Show." Was it another Ryan Lanza? Or was it the same one who had posted on Facebook?
And then there was another Ryan Lanza, who tweeted, at 8 a.m. on Friday, more than one-and-a-half hours before the shootings: "Game day fellas." This man, ripped out of anonymity by the web community, later felt compelled to write: "I didn't kill anyone. My name just happens to be Ryan Lanza."
At some point on Friday evening, it became clear that the killer wasn't Ryan Lanza but Adam Lanza, the younger brother of one of the many Ryan Lanzas. On Friday, the FBI questioned Adam's father Peter, an executive with GE Capital, and his 24-year-old brother Ryan for several hours. Neither man is suspected of having anything to do with the killings.
And neither of them could explain how Adam could have been crazy enough to take lives, the life of his mother and the lives of innocent children. The fact that it was incomprehensible is part of what it makes it so horrific. America has been hit by yet another horrible crime, shortly before Christmas, and quiet has descended once again on a small town in New England.
REPORTED BY ULLRICH FICHTNER, MARC HUJER, SAMIHA SHAFY AND GREGOR PETER SCHMITZ