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Is Sandy Hook a shrine or a school?

Updated: February 28, 2013 6:52AM

‘Cursed shall be the ground because of you.”

Strong words, particularly coming from God, who utters them when he condemns Adam and Eve for eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

The idea that the ground itself can be poisoned by the acts committed upon it is very old, and slumbers in a dark antechamber of the human heart, waiting for atrocities like the Newtown shootings to re-awaken.

More than a month after 20 first-graders and six staffers were killed at Sandy Hook school, the question is: should the school be made into a memorial or returned to its intended use? The community has had several meetings, with more debate to come.

You would think that the answer would break down along lines of impact — that the most affected, the devastated parents and loved ones, would push for a memorial, while the lesser-impacted town folk would pause over the cost of replacing an entire school.

But it is more complicated. Some parents want their kids to go back, while outsiders insist they never be asked to return.

In a way, they’re playing out, on a large scale, what individuals who suffer tragedies go through. They are torn between focusing on the bad thing and forgetting about it, or trying to. To forget too quickly feels wrong. As does lingering too long.

Sadly, we have had enough atrocities that we can look to the past for guidance, although they offer a mixed bag. The scope of the bloodletting isn’t the issue — Columbine went back to being a high school, its name unchanged, after a dozen students were killed, while Brown’s Chicken pulled down the restaurant in Palatine where seven died. Gacy’s house was bulldozed but the apartment where Richard Speck killed eight student nurses in 1966 was later rented out.

Cinemark reopened the Aurora, Colo., movie theater where 12 died, renaming and reconfiguring it. If you go to the Oriental Theater on Randolph Street, you are at the exact site of the Iroquois Theater, where the worst theater fire in American history occurred, killing 600 people, many children.

To me, the Iroquois offers up the key to the what-to-do puzzle, one people overlook during these discussions. Newtown gives every thinking person a visceral shudder, while the Iroquois Theater doesn’t, because the fire happened a long time ago — 110 years exactly, later this year. Time heals. Pearl Harbor still means something jarring to us but the Argonne doesn’t, even though 2,000 Americans died at the former and 26,000 died at the latter, a battle in World War I.

All this talk of remembering the Newtown massacre forever shows that people don’t realize what forever means. Ford’s Theatre was seized by the United States government after Lincoln’s assassination, announcing that no public amusements would be held there, forever. But in the late 1960s, Ford’s was restored and returned to a theater — “Our Town” is playing there now.

What do I think? Every time I hear someone say, “No child should be asked to go back to Sandy Hook Elementary School,” I reply, “Because you wouldn’t want to ask anyone to confront something terrible?”

Our nation fails that way. From the symbolic fiddling we’re considering, briefly, regarding gun control, to our habit of kicking the economic can down the road, we are a people too hot to build memorials for tragedies and too timid to address their causes.

Is the ground cursed because of the killings or sanctified because of the deaths? If it’s cursed, tear the school down and put up a granite monolith; if it’s sanctified, what better memorial to slain students than a school?

I don’t believe in curses. The whole debate has a tinge of the irrational. How does the impulse to raze the school square with the common sentiment that mass killers’ names shouldn’t even be put in the papers, in the flimsy theory that doing so rewards their desire for fame? (People always assume these murders are done for notoriety, based on nothing but their own desire for glory).

I will admit my bias. Londoners kept going about their routine during the Blitz, to shake their fists at the Nazi bombers. The Israelis, at the height of the Intifada, when suicide bombs were going off in coffee shops and at falafel stands, would quickly hose away the gore, replace the windows, right the overturned chairs and reopen for business.

That seems the path of the hero. To say that kids will be traumatized re-entering the school both insults the kids and implies that people should simply avoid their fears — that is a bad lesson. If one of my children were killed at that school, I’d vastly prefer his tribute to be a ban on high-capacity clips over any marble megalith. The best honor for the kids who died is to do whatever we can to keep the kids we still have alive. But that won’t happen, because it’s easier to light an eternal flame than to take daring action.

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