Until Friday morning, Newtown, Conn., pop. 27,560, was known, if at all, as the place where Scrabble was invented. Its residents - well-off - liked it that way. Then came the massacre: 26 dead, including 20 elementary schoolchildren. The event changes everything, not just for Newtown but for America.
In recent years, we've grown wearily familiar with killings in high schools. These horrific events happen with seeming randomness, not in hot-spots like Harlem or Watts but in burgs scattered across the nation, a roll call that includes Red Lake, Minn.; Chardon, Ohio; and of course Columbine High in Littleton, Colo. The aftermath has become as familiar as a script - the search for a cause, whether in the shooter's misshapen life, the parents' dereliction or the community's indifference, as well as a rehashing of the debate over gun control.
But this time it's different, not just because of the number of students who died but because they were so young.
Once, we imagined that school violence was someone else's problem, a plague on inner city high schools that spared the rest of us. But Columbine delivered a forcible reminder that no place, no matter how seemingly picture-perfect, was immune. Until Friday we imagined that lower elementary schools, like the children who attended them, were Edenic in their innocence. No longer.
Predictably, there will be calls to do something - anything - that will make our schools safe again. Some will urge that security guards be hired and metal detectors installed everywhere. Even if you can't imagine a 5-year-old in a leafy enclave like Newtown being asked to shed her backpack when she arrives at school, that child will grow up in a world, barely recognizable to her parents, that has grown ever less trusting, ever more vigilant for the merest hints of danger. Newtown marks an end to innocence, and in ways big and small - ways that we cannot entirely fathom - all of us are the losers.
David L. Kirp, James D. Marver professor of public policy at UC-Berkeley, is the author of the upcoming “Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America's Schools.”