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Why Are We Surprised By the Newtown Murders?

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Shock, sorrow, surprise. Shock, sorrow, surprise. Shock, sorrow, surprise.

Since the Newtown murders on Friday, Dec. 15, this trinity of responses has reverberated in the media and public and private exchanges among observers to the slaughter.

Only the deadened heart cannot feel shock and sorrow. But surprise? How can any observer be surprised?

The massacre of the innocents is a constant throughout history and the stories we tell about it. The powerful, the tormented and the cruel always cross that brightest and most golden of moral lines: Do not harm a child.

In ancient Egypt, a pharaoh demands that all Jewish children be exposed to the elements until they die. Only Moses, rescued by a pharaoh's daughter, survives.

The Gospel of Matthew tells of an angry Herod, after the birth of Jesus, ordering the execution of all children under the age of two in Bethlehem. Hunt them down, the Herodic demons sang.

In the United States and elsewhere, slave children were bred, bought and sold.

During the Holocaust, the Nazis did not exempt children from extermination.

Less bloodily, male members of a family can obsessively play brutal video games, where killing is a path to victory, ignoring littler ones at their feet.

How can observers be surprised by a Newtown, be taken unawares?

Of course, in the struggle between death and life, harm and health, we are alert to the dangers for children. The United States has a militant Children's Defense Fund. We prepare for disaster. We practice drills that train us how to respond to a murderous man with a gun in a school corridor. We order doctors, nurses and social workers to report signs of child abuse. We have courts and grief counselors at the ready when the worst happens.

Much of parenting is the attempt to inoculate children -- not just against polio, but against the savageries and carelessness of the world.

Given all this, why do some of us say that a massacre in a Newtown surprises us. Sadly and egregiously, we are in a destructive state of denial. As T.S. Eliot wrote in his great set of poems Four Quartets, "...human kind/Cannot bear very much reality."

Yet, yet denial is understandable. For a visceral, heart-gashing reality is the inevitability of harm to one's child -- somewhere, some time, some place. I watch my innocent grandchildren hide excitedly in their garden, or laugh at my attempts to play Angry Birds, or eat their Cheerios one by one, or grumble restlessly in their car seats. I can be overwhelmed by my inability to keep them from suffering anything more than the ordinary pangs of growing up -- and I am now only a grandparent, not a parent or teacher or caretaker in the trenches every day.

Denial some of the time is preferable to irrepressible anxiety all of the time.

Being in denial is also a form of magical thinking on the part of people who are not actively raising children. Let me distance myself from what I know about the horrors that children suffer. Let me push reality away. Cosseted in my magical thinking, I need not work to obey that commandment in St. Matthew to love our neighbors as ourselves. And children are our most fragile neighbors.

"I am surprised" is what we say when the capacity for denial is whipped away, and we are left guilty.