Newtown begins 2014 next week with more momentum and resolve than any turning of the New Year we can remember. Coming off a year in which stock-taking was a daily priority and not simply saved for last days of December, the community is primed to get started.
First on the agenda is establishing the financial framework for getting things done. The Board of Finance, Legislative Council, and town administrators are already laying the groundwork for months of budget reviews and deliberations. The conversation tends to be numerical, transforming the real stuff of community — like snowplows, patrol officers, and soccer fields — into dollars and cents, return on investment calculations, and that oft-cited, never-quantified bang for the buck. That is to say, it is not the most stimulating conversation for those of us who are not budget wonks.
A panel of local officials hosted multiple press conferences this week, trying earnestly to satisfy the curiosity of the assembled media about all things Newtown as the community approaches the first anniversary of the deadly 12/14 attack on Sandy Hook School. In recent weeks, these same officials have been trying to reserve the actual anniversary date as a day of private reflection and commemoration for the community. The press conferences were an attempt to preempt a repeat of the media crush that swamped the town a year ago. “We can’t choose to not have this horrible thing happen to us. It happened. We cannot make it un-happen,” First Selectman Pat Llodra told the journalists. “But we can choose how we react to it.”
The days of reckoning following December 14, 2012, led nearly everyone to the same conclusion: We can do better than this. No matter what the issue — gun violence, mental health, school security — there was an overwhelming sense that perhaps something had been overlooked that could have secured for that infamous date the blessedly obscure status as just another Friday.
The search for facts and insights has even extended to the question of how much information is enough in the quest to better understand what happened.
As the people of Newtown prepared for their Thanksgiving celebrations this week, the community once again found itself in the spotlight. This time, the nation’s attention was drawn to the release on Monday of a long-anticipated report by the state’s attorney investigating the 12/14 shootings at the Sandy Hook School — the event for which no one gives thanks. The 48-page summary report, and the voluminous ancillary appendices, were served up to the waiting media, which after months of subsisting on the drip-drip of leaks by anonymous sources were thirsty for the flood of details of this unfathomable crime. For Newtown, however, the important details of that day are written in deeply etched personal remembrances: sights, sounds, and particularly the faces of friends, of family, of children. These faces are the essential aspect of all that we give thanks for this Thanksgiving.
Both the great problems and the great blessings of the world are myriad. The alchemy of transmuting the former into the latter seems to cost us nearly all of our political capital these days — an investment we claim to make in the name of progress. But as we have seen in the past 11 months, the great problem of gun violence and the renewed debate over it sparked by the 12/14 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School has not blessed us with progress or even a semblance of serious dialogue on the issue. Sadly, many of our most pressing problems are now thrown into great polemical ruts, where everyone clings to orthodoxy and no one gives an inch. After nearly a year of trying to navigate these ruts in the name of the innocents lost last December, Sandy Hook Promise has emerged with a new idea. Start the conversation not at points of departure, but at points of convergence: parents’ love for their children.
Last week, a group of volunteers responsible for Newtown’s Victory Garden at Fairfield Hills went to an orchard in nearby Washington and returned with a half ton of apples in the back of a pickup truck. They delivered them to the FAITH Food Pantry and the Nunnawauk Meadows senior housing complex. The fresh fruit was a welcome addition to the pantry, which along with the food bank run by Newtown Social Services, feeds several hundred Newtown residents every month. Newtown is a generous place, but there are times when even these cupboards are nearly bare...
The local election campaign this year lacked the effervescence of a vigorous contest for the town’s top elected office. First Selectman Pat Llodra’s strong and compassionate leadership over the past extraordinary year effectively deflated whatever political aspirations potential challengers may have been harboring for 2013. Aside from a handful of contests for council seats, for town clerk, for a school board position, local Republicans and Democrats nominated only candidates who were guaranteed election under provisions of Newtown’s charter. (The feisty and occasionally active Independent Party of Newtown (IPN) disappeared completely from the ballot this year.)
There are some things about Newtown’s profound loss on 12/14 that the community would prefer to keep from prying eyes. As demolition experts worked to dismantle the old Sandy Hook School over the past week, the town tried to thwart those who wanted to witness the community’s private pain as this wounded place was stripped bare. But the vast stretches of opaque barriers and all the iron-clad nondisclosure requirements for those working on the site were not enough to block the unblinking gaze of the media’s video cameras hovering overhead in helicopters. There are too many things that people still want to see here that we wish could remain out of sight. Conversely, there are things unseen lingering from 12/14 that we wish people would pay closer attention to — now and for decades to come.
A crowd of mostly senior citizens filled seats normally occupied by teenagers in the lecture hall at Newtown High School last week. Turning the tables, they came to do the lecturing to an attentive Board of Finance sitting in front of the class. The subject was property taxes and the lesson was: They’re too high! The face-off seemed inevitable after tax bills went out early last summer, reflecting dramatically higher taxes on dramatically higher assessments for three types of properties, including over-55 condominiums.
On some days, it seems like the great tragedy Newtown suffered on 12/14 has created its own ever-expanding universe, surging out from a big bang amplified by cameras and microphones to places unknown. That big bang echoes back to us from time to time in nearly unintelligible ways that can strain our understanding. The designation of 12/14 as “Guns Save Lives Day” by a couple of gun rights organizations, for example, showed how distance and disdain can distort the message of respect, compassion, and kindness that has flowed out of our community for the past ten months. Fortunately, withering public criticism of this attempt to exploit what will be for most people in Newtown a day of quiet reflection convinced the sponsors of Guns Save Lives Day to push their observances back a day to December 15 to coincide with Bill of Rights Day.