Now and then, thanks to the strange intimacy of technology, there are times in modern American lives when our most momentous and harrowing experiences have been shared.
In the days when radios were still furniture, we listened and poured out into the streets on V-E Day and V-J Day. Comforted by Walter Cronkite’s voice, we mourned around the collective video campfire when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Through the eyes of correspondents in the desert, we watched during the first Gulf War as the Scuds and Patriot missiles streaked through the skies.
The world is more fragmented now, the national watercooler a relic of another, rapidly receding age. Now we can choose, sometimes right down to the word, what information we receive. We can surround ourselves with the likeminded, or we can dive into oceans of opposition and try to hold our own. Where once we only listened and watched, now, by the millions, we shout.
Sometimes it seems that we share so little. And yet, amid all of this fragmentation, some things still stop us in our tracks, make us think, make us talk, make us look to each other, make us feel as if, somehow, we’re one in shock and tragedy.
“There’s no words,” said Richard Wilford, the father of a second-grader who survived. But, of course, there were. In the post-my-status-update, have-my-say America where we now live, there are always words.
A president, the father of two daughters, tried to summon them, delivering a statement on behalf of the country and struggling not to weep. The familiar, antiseptic words of police officials and the stammerings of shaken parents played out on multiple cable networks. And, of course, Americans talked amongst themselves, too: Tweet after tweet and post after post — millions of them by midafternoon — united people in an inadvertently crowd-sourced attempt to make sense of the unfathomable.
Why? Because, as Barack Obama said Friday afternoon, “these neighborhoods are our neighborhoods, and these children are our children.”
Words like “our” and “we” — the “we” of that famous phrase “We, the people,” not incidentally — can sometimes seem hard to come by in America these days. Division, not unity, feels like the dominant trait.
But one of the pieces of common ground we still seize — no matter how much we differ on the methods — is the welfare of, and deep love of, our children. And the abrupt loss of 20 of them seemed, for an afternoon, to stop a nation cold.
Twenty children who will not have children, who in turn will not have children, who in turn will not have children. Dozens of parents who will not watch their child grow to adulthood, graduate, come home for the holidays, walk down the aisle. Scores of grandparents who will look across the generations and see less than they would have 24 hours before. Hundreds of accomplishments that will go unaccomplished. Inventions that will not be invented. Good deeds that will not be committed. Ideas that will not be expressed. Romances that will never happen and kindnesses that will never be shared.
As we watched and talked about those losses amid the cacophony of millions of people saying millions of things, it was hard not to notice the people who converged upon Sandy Hook Elementary School so quickly to do what needed to be done — to help.
Years ago, Fred Rogers — you know him as Mr. Rogers — identified those people as the ones to watch when bad things unfolded on television.
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping,’” he once said. “To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.”
The central American narrative casts us as a nation of individualists, a people rugged and intrepid enough to go it alone. We love that imagery. Yet the republic’s most fundamental tagline — e pluribus unum — means “from many, one.”
That includes a one, yes, but also a many. And when death and tears and scenes of fallen children come calling upon America 11 days before Christmas, the many try to become the one, if only for a moment.
And the 21st century’s ways of connecting — the social networks that allow us to talk to strangers we never would have come across even 20 years ago — both help and hinder that effort.
They permit us to watch a horrific event like this in a strange chamber — with a crowd but alone, conversing about shock and grief through fingers on the keyboard and the smartphone. Trying to connect but, in the end, merely contributing another fragment of conversation in an ocean of opinions more roiling than ever before.
“Remarks are not literature,” the writer Gertrude Stein once said. We still haven’t found out precisely what to do with the millions of remarks our age can generate instantaneously. But events like Friday’s shootings, and the way we experience them nowadays, summon questions with which we still wrestle:
When millions of people have the power of global opinion, how can it be harnessed? At what point are the words turned into something tangible? Or, in the end, are the remarks all that there is?
Now that we can all talk, what should we all do?
Ted Anthony writes about American culture for The Associated Press.