12/13/2013 11:20 am ET Updated Feb 12, 2014

Newtown and the Decay of Our Democracy

One year ago tomorrow, Adam Lanza stormed Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut and killed 26 people, including 20 first graders. In the horrifying aftermath, our nation grappled to take some meaning out of such senseless tragedy. The news media combed through every minute detail of the day ad nauseum, and ideologues from every stance on the political spectrum latched onto it to advocate for their own agendas. Such reflection, however uncomfortable and imperfect, is essential to a functioning democracy. In the wake of preventable disaster, national dialogue must identify its causes and take resolute action to make sure such horror never happens again.

For a short time after that day, national progress seemed possible. Liberals advocated for progress through gun control. President Obama made an impassioned call for action in his speech at the vigil and started a gun control task force. American conservatives, led by the ever-influential NRA and its millions in campaign contributions, claimed to seek similar progress by paying more attention to mental health and school security. To a rational centrist, a combination of both approaches was clearly necessary to prevent further mass murder, and appeared plausible in the brief bout of national unity that seemed to follow Newtown.

Before even the last of the fallen children was buried, however, a very different picture began to emerge. Liberal and conservative camps immediately dug in their heels, churning out their same old arguments. Once again, national dialogue had decayed into a televised shouting match. And as the public witnessed this return to the gridlocked norm, we too lost interest. The number of people searching Google for gun control and the NRA had fallen by more than 75 percent by the start of the new year, less than two weeks later.

Now, a year later, prospects for change look even more dismal. Dianne Feinstein's gun control bill flopped in the Senate and never would have made it onto the House floor. Appropriate attitudes towards mental illness have been all but overlooked in the recent controversy over the Affordable Care Act, a dialogue which has the potential to make a profound difference. Although this week, Vice President Biden unveiled a $100 million effort to improve mental health care which has gone mostly unnoticed by the press, even this progress is far too little, too late.

Almost 10,000 Americans have been gunned down in this past year in which we've failed miserably to act, and we've hardly noticed. Such profound apathy is democracy's greatest enemy. If Newtown, one of the most viscerally horrifying tragedies our country has faced since 9/11, doesn't even inspire an enduring national dialogue -- let alone actual legislative action -- what will?

A democracy can only work if an informed citizenry advocates for the issues that matter to them, as the habitual mass murder of its members very well should. We need to make an informed commitment to progress, or we are doomed to repeat our mistakes until they destroy us. We face enormous challenges. Political sectarianism and the massive quantities of information and opinions we consume every day have, ironically, made us less informed as a society and less open to sincere dialogue.

This attack on our collective memory combines with and fosters a political gridlock of novel proportions. But we cannot give up. If we want progress in any sphere, from gun control to tax reform or immigration, each and every one of us must seize the issues we care about, inform ourselves about them, and ceaselessly advocate for them despite the challenges. Democracy grants tremendous power and freedom to the individual, and thus also vests in us the responsibility to make change. The past year has shown us once more that we can't rely on politicians, activist groups or the media to act for us. The fate of our nation lies in our own hands.