(MCT) — As a parent, the only photo I could bear to look at from that slaughter at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut on Friday was that picture of a little boy and a little girl.
The children were facing the school, their backs to a wooded lot nearby. There weren’t any dead in the picture, except perhaps the innocence that may have died inside the children.
The girl, who appeared older, had her arms around the little boy, comforting him, squeezing him close, her head down, long hair covering her face. The boy, in a plaid shirt, had his head up. He put his hands to his face, covering his nose and mouth. But he didn’t cover those brown eyes of his.
The eyes were wide open, and they stared at something off-frame, and he looked as if he’d spend his lifetime standing there, growing old, staring.
Whether he was staring at pain still unfolding or remembering terror as it happened, we can’t know. What we do know is that as news circulated that a gunman opened fire and the slaughter had begun that would claim the lives of 20 children and eight adults, the rest of us were doing what powerless grown-ups always do when we try to regain control.
We busily assigned blame, thinking we can use reason against the unreasonable.
It’s a natural human impulse, this desperate need to control what terrifies us, and we bring our personal politics to such things. Words and arguments often help us feel secure when, deep down, we must know that no argument can keep us safe.
But that didn’t stop us from lighting up the Twitterverse, some insisting there are too many guns in this country, others that there weren’t enough in the hands of the right people at a critical time, a nation talking of amendments, and restrictions, policies, rights.
But look at that boy’s eyes. He’s not arguing. He’s not employing reason. He’s not thinking of rights or policy. He can’t. What he has learned early in life is you can’t reason with madness. You can’t argue with evil.
And you can’t use rhetoric to protect yourself from a psychopath.
We are a country that is eager to politicize certain illnesses. So we coalesce, and wear symbolic clothing and put on those special colors. We march and raise money against this illness or that illness.
Yet these are illnesses of the body, not of the mind. We don’t proudly wear colors to fight mental illness.
Perhaps because it carries a stigma and probably because mental illness terrifies us, since it shows us how little control we have.
Yet we can’t cover our faces and stare at what happened at Sandy Hook and do nothing. We’ve got to do better in talking about mental illness, and in tracking it, and we must do a better job of treating it.
Because when the story of that 20-year-old who pulled the triggers is explained — the one who wore a costume of black as if in a movie — my guess is that what we learn about him won’t involve a reasonable human being.
It will be about the madness within him and what behaviors were either forgiven or ignored for years as he proceeded to his final transformation Friday.
It was madness that led to the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, where 33 were killed including the gunman and 30 were injured. But neither Sandy Hook nor Virginia Tech was the deadliest school massacre in American history.
We tend to think of school massacres as something modern. But the worst one wasn’t modern, and it wasn’t even a shooting spree. It took place in Bath Township, Mich., near Lansing, at a K-12 school, and it claimed the lives of 45 people, including 38 children. It tells us that madness is not some modern affliction — it’s a human condition.
The massacre was the work of Andrew Kehoe, 55, a farmer and local school board member who opted for explosives.
Kehoe’s mother died when he was young, and he had serious arguments with his young stepmother. One day, while near the family’s oil stove, there was an accident. The stepmother caught fire. Kehoe threw a bucket of water on her and the flames engulfed her and she died.
He was also cruel to livestock — the torture of animals is often a step on the path to homicide — and one story had him beating a horse to death.
Then on May 18, 1927, he beat his wife to death. Then he set fire to his farm and drove to the school where he served as caretaker. Kehoe had been busy for more than a year, secretly setting bombs of dynamite and explosive chemicals.
He ignited the first wave of bombs, and when townspeople ran to help, he set off the second wave, which claimed his life as well. Authorities later found an unexploded 500-pound bomb in the rubble.
One of the survivors was Willis Cressman, who was interviewed by National Public Radio in 2009 when he was 97.
“You wouldn’t think a church member could do such a thing, would you?” said Cressman. “He was the caretaker. … In fact, I saw him that morning. He was working on a door, and he smiled at us as we walked in.”
Though Willis Cressman was an old man, you could imagine him as a boy once, outside his school, a child survivor of another man’s demons.
My guess is that he also stood like that little Connecticut boy in the photo from Sandy Hook, the way other children stood outside a school in Winnetka years ago, or at Northern Illinois University, Virginia Tech and Columbine, hands covering the face in the universal human expression of horror, eyes wide open, disbelieving.
John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. He can be e-mailed at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @John_Kass.