In the end there were 38 children dead at the school, two teachers and four other adults.
I’m not talking about the horrific shooting in Connecticut today. I’m talking about the worst school murder in American history. It took place in Michigan, in 1927. A school board official, enraged at a tax increase to fund school construction, quietly planted explosives in Bath Township Elementary. Then, the day he was finally ready, he set off an inferno. When crowds rushed in to rescue the children, he drove up his shrapnel-filled car and detonated it, too, killing more people, including himself. And then, something we’d find very strange happened.
No cameras were placed at the front of schools. No school guards started making visitors show identification. No Zero Tolerance laws were passed, nor were background checks required of PTA volunteers—all precautions that many American schools instituted in the wake of the Columbine shootings, in 1999. Americans in 1928—and for the next several generations —continued to send their kids to school without any of these measures. They didn’t even drive them there. How did they maintain the kind of confidence my own knees and heart don’t feel as I write this?
They had a distance that has disappeared. A distance that helped them keep the rarity and unpredictability of the tragedy in perspective, granting them parental peace.
“In 1928, the odds are that if people in this country read about this tragedy, they read it several days later, in place that was hard to get to,” explains Art Markman, author of “Smart Thinking” (Perigee Books, 2012). “You couldn’t hop on a plane and be there in an hour. Michigan? If you were living in South Carolina, it would be a three-day drive. It’s almost another country. You’d think, ‘Those crazy people in Michigan,’ same as if a school blows up in one of the breakaway Republics.”
Time and space create distance. But today, those have compressed to zero. The Connecticut shooting comes into our homes–even our hands–instantly, no matter where we live. We see the shattered parents in real time. The President can barely maintain composure. This sorrow isn’t far away, it’s local for every single one of us.
And of course it brings up Columbine. Two horrors, separated by years and miles, are now fused into one. It feels like terrible things are happening to our children all the time, everywhere. Nowhere is safe.
As a result, I expect we will now demand precautions on top of precautions. More guards. More security cameras. More supervision. We will fear more for our kids and let go of them even more reluctantly. Every time we wonder if they can be safe beyond our arms, these shootings will swim into focus.
Will this new layer of fear and security make our children any safer? Probably not, but for a reassuring reason: A tragedy like this is so rare, our kids are already safe. Not perfectly safe. No one ever is. But safe.
That’s a truth the folks in 1928 America understood. We just don’t feel that way now.
Not when there’s no distance between us and the parents in Newtown.