A Day After the Shooting, Newtown Is Being Watched by the Entire World

A man pays tribute to the victims of the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn.

Photo by EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Sandy Hook school shooting.

NEWTOWN, CONN.—All afternoon they’ve been coming, up Riverside Road toward the turnoff for Sandy Hook School, bearing bouquets, signs, and other souvenirs of sorrow: lone mourners, large groups, fathers and sons in athletic gear, mothers and daughters in winter coats. For every local, there are at least two journalists, bearing tripods and cameras and long, thin reporters’ notebooks, here to document the tragedy so that the rest of us can experience it, too.

One day after a lone gunman shot and killed 26 people at Sandy Hook School, the people here are faced with the impossible challenge of having to process their grief while being watched by the entire world. Newtown and Sandy Hook are two of the prettiest towns I’ve ever seen. Now, they are choked with international observers, the roadsides lined with dead leaves, lone hubcaps, empty beer cans, satellite trucks, and caution tape.

Nobody here has any experience with this sort of thing, and they’re all processing it in different ways. In downtown Sandy Hook, merchants hang signs expressing solidarity and grief: “Pray for our victims town & country,” “Our love thoughts and prayers are with our community,” “Our hearts are broken our spirits are strong.” On a table outside Fun Kuts barber shop, a red Christmas bowl contains white slips of paper, inscribed in crayon with prayers written in a child’s unsteady hand: “God bless those whom were killed yesterday. All the lives lost gone God bless them. They are in a better place.” And, simply, “They are with the angels now.”

Some, understandably, are beginning to try and draw lessons from the tragedy. One man has driven here from Bridgeport, a gloomy city 20 miles away, and is lingering on the roadside, talking to any journalist who will listen. “If they could bring more attention to the urban areas, where people are being shot every day, maybe they could change something,” he says, emphatically. In the window of a dress shop called Sabrina Style, someone has posted an extended reflection on the shooting, closing with this:

If there’s anything we can learn from the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary it’s that we ALL need to slow down, simplify our lives, and take the time to appreciate our loved ones each and every moment. Life is short, fragile. If you don’t do it now, you may not get another chance.

Others are trying to render aid. A group of college students home for the holidays have started a group called Santas for Sandy Hook. They are fanning out around the town, wearing festive hats, collecting money that will go to the victims. The homemade signs explaining their efforts also contain a hopeful Twitter hashtag: #NewtownStrong.

But most people here seem to be settling for a silent tribute. At the Big Y supermarket, near St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church, the floral department is the first thing you see upon entrance, and the flowers are priced to move: seven stem-spray roses for $2.48; a buy-one-get-one-free rose garden bouquet; good prices on tulips and poinsettias. Even at 3 p.m, people keep trickling in. Two teenage girls, shivering, buy two Holiday Joy Bouquets. A man with close-cropped hair and a Fu Manchu moustache grabs a bunch of roses. An enormous guy in a thin black coat leaves with four bottles of Similac and a paper-wrapped bouquet. Almost half the shopping carts in the store contain some type of flowers.

Most of these, I’m guessing, will end up near the school, or outside a church, or at one of the myriad impromptu memorials lining the streets and sidewalks here. Some of these are big: a few steps from the school, a homeowner displays a large American flag and two sheets of plywood that carry a spray-painted message: BLESS THE FAMILIES. Some of them are small: 20 yards from where I park, a purple Blackberry Crisp scented candle burns beneath a bus stop.

On the corner of Dickenson Drive, across from the fire department, a white wooden post holds a plain sign reading “Sandy Hook School—1956—Visitors Welcome.” The base of the post is buried under countless flowers, candles, stuffed animals, cards, and hand-lettered signs. Six feet away, cordoned behind police tape, dozens of reporters and cameramen stand, ravenous for sound bites and B-roll, straining to contact everyone who comes to pay tribute. Several large signs read “No Media Beyond This Point.”

A blonde girl in a North Face fleece trudges up the road, flowers in hand, visibly straining to remain composed. Standing two feet away from her as she passes, I can hear her breathing. Walking back a few minutes later, having laid the flowers, she loses her resolve and cries to herself until she is embraced by another pilgrim.

When I was young, my parents found religion and traveled to Yugoslavia to visit a remote spot where the Virgin Mary was said to have appeared. The people today are, I think, making a similar sort of pilgrimage. Apparitions and massacres both come out of nowhere, like dispatches from a world that’s beyond our comprehension, their existence so momentous and irrational that they seem to demand from us items of sacrifice and tribute. It is dark now in Newtown, but they are still laying wreaths and flowers, just as they will for days and days, compelled to commemorate something they can hardly believe happened; to touch a terrible vastness they can’t begin to understand.