Noah Pozner, the youngest victim of the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, was just six years old when he was killed last month in a hail of bullets at Sandy Hook Elementary School — an occurrence so incomprehensible that even the passage of the better part of a month makes it difficult to type those words.
Few details about the mechanics of the horror have been disclosed for obvious reasons, but the mother of Noah Pozner has commented on the singularly nightmarish experience of viewing and identifying her little boy’s body — and while it is likely one of the more difficult things you will read for some time, it also feels like Americans owe it to Veronique Pozner to listen and bear witness to her account of Noah’s death and the wounds he sustained in the course of the attack.
In the wake of the Newtown school shooting, Americans have been locked in a fierce debate about the ethics and constitutionality of guns in the US, and many have been accused of “politicizing” the tragedy in order to further their own agendas.
But when the dust settles and the controversy merchants move on, we are left with the utterly senseless deaths of 20 six and seven-year-old children, first graders, and six of their teachers. And there’s something to be said about viewing the incident without the veneer of teddy bear memorials and celebrity-studded versions of “Hallelujah,” seeing it for what it is — a violent act that was both brutal and preventible, a violent act that the parents of Noah Pozner as well as the 19 other children murdered must face every day until the day they themselves die.
When the shock of the Newtown shooting was still fresh, CNN commentator Roland Martin suggested that a parent of one of the children gunned down perhaps mirror the actions of Mamie Till, mother of slain black teenager Emmett Till.
Emmett’s mother changed history when she released a photo of her son’s body, shocking America and galvanizing the civil rights movement, despite an outcry from those who insisted no more middle ground could be had. She later explained:
“There was just no way I could describe what was in that box… No way. And I just wanted the world to see.”
Martin admits the idea is shocking to the point of being nearly unspeakable, but he counters that the alternative — pretending the worst parts of the trauma did not occur — is perhaps more obscene, more morally lax and more inexcusable:
“Our senses have been dulled to the real world carnage. We demand that news organizations not show American troops, or even the enemy, lying dead in war zones. Even when our troops returned home in flag-draped coffins, the Bush administration forbade it from being covered by the media. The Los Angeles Times was ripped by readers for showing the bloody, lifeless body of Ambassador Christopher Stevens being dragged out of a building in Benghazi, Libya.”
Jewish Daily Forward posted a column by journalist Naomi Zeveloff, who spoke with Veronique Pozner about Noah’s death and the days that followed. Zeveloff details her struggle with publishing the information she was given by Mrs. Pozner — but ultimately concludes the grieving parent hoped to illustrate in facts and difficult truths what the “angels in heaven” narrative so thoroughly conceals.
At the start of the piece, Zeveloff quotes Pozner as she describes asking Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy to view Noah’s open casket — Veronique Pozner explains, heartbreakingly, how she hoped that if the time ever came to pass legislation on the factors that led to her son’s death, Gov. Malloy would be able to place a face and a person with the decision:
“I needed it to have a face for him… If there is ever a piece of legislation that comes across his desk, I needed it to be real for him.”
Later in the discussion, Zeveloff explains that Noah’s mom described, without prompting, the state of his remains when she viewed them, saying:
“We all saw how beautiful he was. He had thick, shiny hair, beautiful long eyelashes that rested on his cheeks. He looked like he was sleeping. But the reality of it was under the cloth he had covering his mouth there was no mouth left. His jaw was blown away. I just want people to know the ugliness of it so we don’t talk about it abstractly, like these little angels just went to heaven. No. They were butchered. They were brutalized. And that is what haunts me at night.”
Zeveloff asks Pozner how she came to make the decision to view Noah’s body, and what tears at your soul about it is the essence of her statement — because who among us would not feel the exact same way?
Veronique Pozner replied:
“I owed it to him as his mother, the good, the bad, the ugly… It is not up to me to say I am only going to look at you and deal with you when you are alive, that I am going to block out the reality of what you look like when you are dead. And as a little boy, you have to go in the ground. If I am going to shut my eyes to that I am not his mother. I had to bear it. I had to do it.”
Indeed, in those two exchanges, it seems the crux of the issue is clear — Veronique Pozner made the difficult choice to view Noah’s body after he had been shot multiple times at close range because she owed it to him, as his mother, to know.
And it seems that regardless of where you stand on any of the issues stirred up by the tragic violence in Newtown, we all owe it to the surviving families to hear not just the uplifting stories of togetherness and bravery after the Sandy Hook shootings, but the unvarnished facts of the situation as well. The six-year-old boy who was shot not only in the face in his first-grade classroom, but an additional ten times as well.
It seems a small thing for the parents who lost a child in Newtown to have our attention so we can hear what it is that they want to say, and we should all at the very least give them that, regardless of how incredibly difficult it may be to hear, read or see. Perhaps Roland Martin was half right — because after reading Veronique Pozner’s statements, maybe we don’t need to see a picture. Perhaps if all Americans read those words and listened, imagery would be unnecessary.
But we the adults that failed in protecting those children at Sandy Hook should not be spared from knowing what happened, and making an informed decision as to how to prevent it the best we can from ever happening again.