The school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut is unimaginable on any number of levels: the slaughter of very young children in a school where they were supposed to be protected and nurtured, the murder of a mother by her son. Some of the shock will be dispelled by news reporting in the days and weeks to come as we learn more about the killer’s motivations even as we’ll never find them justifiable.
But given how little we know, and how much the reporting on Newtown got wrong in the first days, there are two books worth reading—or re-reading—for what they tell us about how to be skeptical, and how to be empathetic in the wake of this sort of tragedy.
The first is Dave Cullen’s Columbine, a deeply reported examination of what lead to that school shooting, examining everything from the killers’ personalities, which were dramatically different than the public images of them that solidified in the wake of the tragedy, to the community response and law enforcement investigation. Cullen, who has written about the lessons of Columbine for Slate, dismantles many of the accepted narratives about the event—that there was a bullying culture at Columbine High School that motivated the attack, or that a martyr was killed for her faith. And in debunking those specific stories, Cullen also offers up case studies for how myths become accepted as truth, and how outside observers of (and even people directly affected by) mass killings seize on convenient and comforting explanations for tragic events.
While Cullen’s reporting cautions us to keep using our heads, fiction can provide instruction for our emotions and moral imaginations. Lionel Shriver’s novel We Need To Talk About Kevin is written in the form of letters from the mother of a school shooter to her husband, who we find out later in the book was his son’s second victim before he set off to kill his classmates. In one of the most shattering sequences in the book, Eva, the main character, imagines what her husband must have felt in the moment before he realized his son intended to murder him. “It is possible your cerebrum even managed to reconfigure the image, to remix the sound track…The waving? He’s waving for you to bring the camera. He’s changed his mind, and with another five minutes left before he has to catch the bus, he wants you to take some photographs after all.”
In other words, there is no possibility of understanding what’s about to happen, there’s no way to truly comprehend it. And that inability to comprehend the kind of tragedy that overtook Newtown, our inability to simply understand—it’s not a sign of our failure to gather and process all the information available to us. It’s a reminder of our common decency.