After the shock and the horror comes the speculation: Why did an obviously disturbed young man enter an elementary school in Connecticut and gun down scores of people, many of them children?
We will root through his background for clues: Who raised him? Was he in the military? Did he play video games? Was he in a cult? Did mental illness take him to this dark place, and did we miss the warning signs along the way? We will piece together an approximation of a workable narrative that somehow inevitably ends with this man going into a school and doing what he did -- because the ending is the one part we can get fully right.
But there is really only one fact that makes such violence comprehensible: This man woke up in a country in which virtually anyone can purchase weapons -- with little more effort than is required to put gasoline in the tank of their car -- that give them the power to murder people.
That is the one fact that demands to be changed.
The impetus to make sense of unspeakable tragedy is a basic part of humanity. Something both terrible and extraordinary has happened, something we are eager to avoid envisioning as the fate for our own children, so our minds search for the particulars that might render this situation unique. We try to distinguish this young man from any other young man who might enter our own local elementary school.
But the underlying tragedy of this latest American catastrophe is how familiar this sort of spectacle has become. The television coverage and the reactions of prominent people all seem to unfold along the lines of a preconceived script: shock and heartbreak, then biographical inquiry, before we stick the story on the guy who pulled the trigger and move on.
We know what to do, what to say, what to ask, because we have been here before far too many times, absorbing the images of horrifying violence and imagining what it would be like to hear the news if those children were your own.
This is insane. It is madness that we continue to allow such bloodshed to unfold, occasioning predictable dismay while the gun lobby keeps buying off our politicians and ensuring that the rules never change.
As I type this, we do not know what prompted this man to kill those people in that school, but we know that the next disturbed person with similarly murderous inclinations will be able to get their hands on the means to follow through.
In every country, some people lose their jobs and become enraged. Some suffer mental illness and seize on fantastical notions. They are spurned and hatch crackpot schemes and seek revenge. In every country, some people are disturbed, broken-hearted or angry enough to murder. What is special about this country is the extent of the damage that such people are able to inflict when the urge comes.
As we inevitably speculate and sift through biographical facts in this process of seeking reassurance, there is one fact above all others that needs to be altered: We have to make it harder for people to get their hands on guns.
Follow Peter S. Goodman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/petersgoodman