News Column

'We Must Change,' President Tells Nation

Dec 17, 2012

Daniela Altimari

A somber President Obama told a shattered community that the nation has let its children down.

"We're not doing enough," Obama said during an interfaith service at Newtown High School on Sunday night. "And we will have to change. Since I've been president, this is the fourth time we have come together to comfort a grieving community torn apart by mass shootings, [the] fourth time we've hugged survivors, the fourth time we've consoled the families of victims.

The president's 18-minute speech was more about providing comfort to the emotionally fragile citizens of Newtown than about laying out his legislative agenda on gun control. However, he made clear his intentions to seek a new path to end gun violence.

Obama pledged to "use whatever power this office holds" to engage law enforcement, mental health professionals, parents and teachers in an effort to reduce gun violence.

"We can't accept events like this as routine," Obama said. "Are we really prepared to say that we're powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?"

Obama spoke to about 800 people in an auditorium located less than a half-mile from Sandy Hook Elementary School, where six adults and 20 children were killed in one of the worst mass shootings in the nation's history. Another 1,200 or so gathered in the high school gymnasium to watch a video feed of the service.

A wave of heavy sobs could be heard throughout the auditorium when Obama listed the names of the slain teachers, school psychologist and school principal. Those sobs were audible when he concluded his comments by saying the first names of the 20 slain children.

Speaking Sunday night, Newtown First Selectwoman Pat Llorda, fresh off a series of challenges wrought by the recent prolonged power outage due to storm Sandy, said nothing could prepare her for the heartache her community encountered Friday. She was comforting, telling townspeople they will persevere. The shooting was "a defining moment," she said, "but it does not define us."

Obama, who earlier in the day went to his daughter Sasha's dance recital, spoke about the joy and anxiety of parenthood, which he compared to "the equivalent of having your heart outside of your body all the time, walking around."

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who spoke just before the president, said Obama told him that Friday was the most difficult day of his presidency.

"I chose to think about the fact that in the coming days, we will officially enter winter and that is always to be followed by the spring," Malloy said. "I will be thinking of those 27 souls lost just a few days ago each time the day gets a little longer. ... I will think and dream of the lives that might have been and the lives that were so full of grace."

There was music and prayers but also long stretches of silence, allowing people the space to grieve silently. The speakers sat among the audience, in a symbolic gesture to show they, too, were part of a community in need of healing. A rabbi recited a prayer and a Christian minister read a passage from the Bible, relying on ancient texts to provide comfort to those reeling from a very modern crime.

Members of the audience clutched small children on their laps, cried, comforted those nearest them and nodded in agreement with various speakers. Meanwhile, outside, members of the Sikh community from 11 different places of worship around the Northeast came to the vigil and hosted a candlelight ceremony outside after everyone went in.

"Today, we, the Sikh community ... we have come here to Sandy Hook today to express our love and support for all the families affected. Today we are no less devastated than we were four months ago when one of our places of worship was attacked. Today each one of us feels that our own children have been targeted. That's what has brought us here today. We have all joined together in prayer. It's important for us to reflect that it's times of great tragedy that bring out the best in all of us," said Sarbpreer Singh, spokesman for one of the Sikh communities.

On Aug. 5, 2012, a lone gunman killed six people and wounded four others at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., before shooting himself. That incident was one of the four Obama cited in his speech.

In addition to the governor, state officials in attendance at the memorial included Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman and legislative leaders, including John McKinney, the Senate Minority Leader whose district includes Newtown; House Speaker Chris Donovan; and his replacement on the speaker's dais, Brendan Sharkey.

Connecticut's U.S. representatives in attendance included Jim Himes, Rosa DeLauro, John Larson and Chris Murphy and U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Joseph Lieberman. Members of the congressional delegation briefly met with Obama.

"I think we're at a turning point, a tipping point," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who was the state attorney general and U.S. attorney in Connecticut before his election to the Senate in 2010. As he spoke to a reporter, he was approached by Amy Martin, 17, a Newtown High student. She handed him two stickers. Each carried the image of a child's handprint and the date 12-14-12. She and her friends have been selling them in town to raise money for the victims

At exactly 7:30 p.m., a group of first responders -- local and state police and emergency personnel -- filed into the auditorium. They were met with a prolonged standing ovation, as were the federal law enforcement agents who followed.

While waiting for Obama to speak, Sean Bennet of Bristol and his friend, Marlando Campbell, waited outside Newtown High School.

"I think it shows human side of president -- he's a president but also a father and a husband and I think just showing [the] world [that] ..." Bennett said, and Campbell finished: "It's not about politics."

Bennet said he is friends with the family of Ana M. Marquez-Greene, 6, one of the victims in the shooting because he shares a church with her father, Jimmie Greene.

"He and his wife were the first people I met in Connecticut," he said. "They've been there for me during really hard times ... I just wanted to come out and do whatever I could."

Jacquie Small, of Bridgeport, was drawn to Newtown on Sunday. "I'm a mother, and words cannot express my feelings for [families] who lost loved ones. I just came to share my grief with them so that's a reason why I'm here tonight. I didn't care if it was rain, snow, sleet storm, I would still have been here."

Earlier in the day, people traveled from around the region to mourn in Newtown. Kerry Stewart came from West Hartford with his wife, Mary Lynn, and daughter, Grace.

"We just felt, as a family, we wanted to come down," he said. Stewart is a teacher at the prison in Newtown. His wife is a school nurse. "You just want to go home and hug your kid."

Mary Lynn looked at the bells hung from a large pine tree, one that was strung with lights for Christmas. Each bell had the name of a victim, and said "Angel at 6" or "Angel at 7."

Barbara McDonald came from Waterbury with her sister and her niece.

"My daughter is petrified to go to school tomorrow," McDonald said. She told the 9-year-old to "just pray," she said. McDonald and her sister, Nadia Facey, are both paraprofessionals in Waterbury schools.

"I'm here because I just feel like I need to be here. I can't describe it," said Trish Blazi of Middlebury, wiping tears from her eyes. "These poor parents. Once this town has emptied out ... Right now, the support of the whole country is around them. When that's gone, what do you do?"

People thronged makeshift memorials much of Sunday, even in a downpour in the late morning. That was when golden retrievers from the Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry arrived from Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Portage, Ind.

"We're here to give some emotional support," handler Dan Fulkerson said. "Wherever we're needed, we go."

Reporting by Jenny Wilson, The Associated Press and the White House pool report are included in this account.



Source: (c)2012 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.