The problem with demolishing Sandy Hook

Earlier this month a group of community leaders from Newtown, Connecticut, met to discuss the options pertaining to Sandy Hook Elementary School, eventually agreeing unanimously to tear down the building. The elementary school made national headlines this past December when a lone gunman entered the building and killed 26 children and teachers, shocking the country.

Police at Sandy Hook. (Courtesy WikiCommons)

Police at Sandy Hook. (Courtesy WikiCommons)

The task force began with the question of whether to return to the building or not, deciding against doing so after an emotional plea from teachers who found the thought of returning to the site of the massacre to be unthinkable. After resolving to level the elementary school building, the next question then came down to whether to rebuild on the existing site or somewhere else; most likely in a lot a mere 200 yards away.

While I can understand the aversion to returning to a place where such horrible events transpired, it’s a somewhat unusual – and in my opinion, troubling – way to deal with the trauma. In the United States, even in just the last decade or so, we have had no shortage of traumatic events borne out of hate or anger. But the reaction, in the vast majority of situations, has not been to bury and forget – instead, American culture often takes a measure of pride in overcoming tragedy and devastation, sometimes even nearing hubris on the matter. For all its faults, it is this unflinching determination and resolve that has produced some of the greatest moments in American history and propelled our nation to progress rather than wallowing and self-pity.

Columbine High School (site of the 1999 Littleton shooting) chose to expand the library where most of the incident took place into a new atrium. The theater in Aurora reopened six months after the tragic events there following a remodeling. Virginia Tech chose to not only reopen the building where the worst mass shooting in US history took place but also, appropriately, turned part of it into the university’s new Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention. Even the World Trade Center has been replaced with the Freedom Tower which not only memorializes the losses of 9/11 but does so in such a way that life might return to a semblance of what it was like before the trauma of the attacks.

In Israel, they refuse to allow violence to slow down public life. But they also don't forget. (Image courtesy Bachrach44.)

In Israel, they refuse to allow violence to slow down public life. But they also don’t forget. (Image courtesy Bachrach44.)

The Israeli has, in some ways, taken to dealing with man-made trauma of this sort in an artful and uncompromising way. There, violent incidents in public areas have not been infrequent; one way the public has consistently responded to such attacks has not been to tear down a site (after months of inaction) but to rebuild as quickly as possible. At the site of a violent attack, it would not be uncommon to see workers restoring walls and such at the same time that a candle light vigil is being held, the following day. To the groups who seek to disrupt and harm their citizens, Israel demonstrates that, while they certainly take notice – a nice plaque or memorial of some variety is usually put up – they will not allow it to disrupt or change the lives of their people or the operations of day to day life any more than it already has.

So what is different about Sandy Hook and the United States? Undeniably, the shooting that took place there, while maybe not the “worst” in terms of numbers, has already become a fixed moment in American memory and public discourse as a significant trauma. In some respect it may have been the way it came on the heels of another traumatic mass shooting just a few months beforehand in Aurora, Colorado and the especially heinous nature of the crime – the targeting of young school children.

But Columbine, arguably, was a similar moment (evidenced by the fact that I bet most Americans reading this knew I was referring to a specific incident that occurred 14 years ago). The September 11th attacks and the WTC, obviously, qualified as well. I wonder if perhaps something has changed or if the aftermath of what happened at Sand Hook is unique.

After Columbine, which prompted a short-lived gun control discussion, there was a lot of noise in the discourse – many people presenting the story of the shooters as two students of the high school who had had enough of being outcasts, finally taking to lashing out at their peers in violent “revenge.” While I’m not going to even try to argue whether or not this was accurate, it is a contrast to how the discussion about Sandy Hook has developed. Many gun control advocates have catalyzed behind the incident, arguing that, given the repeat nature of these types of events, perhaps it cannot all be attributed as merely isolated incidents of bad people doing bad things. Even those who might not be on board with the gun control activists’ points, most have had a hard time not admitting the social and cultural nature of these mass shootings.

This is the crucial difference, I believe. Whereas an event like September 11 has formed in the national discourse as “the other” versus us (Americans), or even Columbine, where the shooters were anti-social individuals, separate from “average” Americans – Sandy Hook has, perhaps, forced us to do something we’ve become particularly adverse to in current days: a self-examination that could involve some unpleasantness and discomfort (and perhaps even an admittance of a degree of fault).

Don’t misunderstand me – while I won’t pretend to understand the horror of what the educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School had to experience while their students and co-workers were needlessly killed, I can imagine returning to the scene of such an incident would be most difficult. But to tear down the building completely is an unusual response, and for good reason.

Because if we forget history can and will repeat itself. (Image by Walter Chichersky)

Because if we forget, history can and will repeat itself. (Image by Walter Chichersky)

Dealing with tragedy is never easy but to respond by trying to bury and forget is likely to be problematic. The German people, even though we are the better part of a century past it, still struggle in some ways with making sense of World War II and the Third Reich’s Holocaust. However, they have memorialized many of the various concentration camps made during that period – quite a few of which are open to the public as monuments or museums. While these places served as the sites for some of the most vile acts of human civilization, Germany realizes the value of keeping them despite their unpleasantness; as reminders.

As one individual former student, along with his siblings (one of whom was a student at Sandy Hook) stated on the issue: “Call me crazy, call me insensitive, but I would go back to that school tomorrow. The least we could do for those kids is to bring them home.”

A panel member remarked at one meeting that to her, “that is always going to be a site where 26 people were murdered,” regardless if they destroy and rebuild. So in a futile attempt to try to create distance between the incident and current life, millions of dollars will be spent to build an unnecessary school. Though it could be said mine is an insensitive stance – I argue the opposite.

For the past six months students have been attending another elementary school which has been temporarily renamed Sandy Hook, while the adults try to figure out what to do. If you really want to “think of the children” then perhaps the best course would be to show them that life goes on, that adversity can be conquered and that while bad things do happen, that we don’t let bad things or bad people control our lives. We don’t waste millions of dollars on something the children don’t need and some don’t seem to even want. We don’t try to forget, we try to learn – we make our nation safer by pursuing reasonable gun control measures and mental health problems, to prevent another incident from happening.

And I merely worry if we’re doing and demonstrating something very different; Adam Lanza was scarred in some way by his experience as a student of Sandy Hook and in his mind he was serving up revenge, destroying the school he hated so much. Maybe this is exactly what he wanted.

Written by Llowell Williams, founder and principal contributor to the subjectiv. Comments are always welcome and if you wish to contact the author he can be emailed via