At Slate, Laura Smith describes in detail the architectural process to replace Sandy Hook Elementary School with a new school, one that reflects “a physical manifestation of a town’s response to tragedy.” It reflects something else as well: how selective our sense of compassion is to victims of violent crime.
Besides its $50 million price tag for a school that currently teaches fewer than 400 children, the planned school’s elaborate design process shows a level of caring that is a model of communal concern on a par with, say, the attention paid to detail at lower Manhattan’s ground zero. From the approaching driveway to the security-minded design flourishes to the very decision to rebuild from scratch, the plans speak to priorities that go far beyond utility. Smith writes:
It is an optimistic look at the future, one which seeks to encourage children to play and learn outside, to embrace life and the place they live—and it is a rejection of fear. It is slated to open in the fall of 2016, and then the design and the town’s vision of the future will be tested.
When I look at the cost and thorough planning of the school replacement in the context of the national response to that tragedy — more than $28 million in charitable donations, not to mention massive infusions of government aid — I’m left to wonder what exactly sets these murders apart from the tens of thousands of others that have been committed in the two years since.
I mean no disrespect to the Newtown victims, survivors, and those who genuinely care for their well-being. The survivors deserve anything and everything we can provide to them. Many of the parents have distinguished themselves through their selfless public advocacy to prevent future crimes. And I’m not blind to the obvious: The special horrors of Newtown set it apart for entirely rational reasons.
But we should use this as an occasion to question the factors that drive our charitable, media, and policy responses to crimes of violence. Are the victims of other murders — from mass murders and school shootings to everyday violence on the streets and in homes — any less lost? Are their survivors any less traumatized? In our coldest actuarial moments, when we weigh the relative innocence of each victim, can we really say that Newtown’s were so disproportionately deserving that they justly get so much when others get so little, or simply nothing?
I read the Slate story just before reading this Washington Post post-mortem on Homicide Watch, the innovative Washington, D.C., journalism experiment that showed what it means to care equally for every victim — even those, perhaps especially those, who otherwise would disappear without a trace.
That kind of perfect egalitarianism would never be sustainable if we expected it from all journalists covering murder, much less from donors to charity and policymakers reacting to crises. In fact, it wasn’t even sustainable (financially speaking) as a Washington-only journalism response.
But, when we allow our charity, our journalism, and our public policy to skew so extremely toward some victims and away from others — whether based on common sense (mass murder of young children at school) or on something uglier (race, wealth, media savvy) — we at least ought to recognize it when it happens, even if we know that we’re bound to keep doing it.