(Article changed on December 21, 2012 at 07:46)
When the Twin Towers fell over a decade ago, every American called himself a New Yorker.
Now, we are all Newtowners, but not just because of the tragedy that took the lives of 26 teachers and students at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Unlike the other places that have seen grave tragedies in recent years, Newtown isn't the commercial center of the most powerful country on earth. It isn't the confined world of a college campus, nor the hotbed of angst of an economically depressed suburb.
Newtown--my hometown--is the kind of place where people still leave their doors unlocked while kids play ball in the streets, where schools win "blue ribbon" awards for their outstanding educators, and where, on sticky summer nights, people gather at local ice-cream shops. One is nestled on a farm, where the ice cream is made on site daily. While newspapers in big cities are closing, the Newtown Bee still faithfully captures the top headlines each week, including this one. The town is proud of its state football championships, its famed Olympian, Bruce Jenner (now better known as a Kardashian), and noted residents such as Suzanne Collins, author of "The Hunger Games."
Head to Main Street, and you'll find the General Store right out of a Norman Rockwell painting, doling out tremendous sandwiches named for local landmarks. Walk towards the town hall, which doubles as a second-run movie theater, and note the sign proudly observing Newtown as the birthplace of Scrabble. As you walk, you'll pass by several 18th century homes that are still intact, still occupied (far from a "new town," Newtown was founded in 1705). Walk downhill and find the elementary school I attended, Hawley, which sits on land that once was an encampment for French and American troops. They were making their journey south to Yorktown, Virginia, for our eventual victory over the British. Local legend has it that the weathervane on top of the old church still has a bullet hole from the soldiers coming through town.
They weren't the only soldiers who passed through Newtown. The town cemetery--a virtual window into American history--is the final resting place for veterans of every major American war. The tombstones range from pre-Revolutionary War limestone, crafted during our humblest beginnings as a nation, to grand marble ones, to modern granite memorials, such as the artistic bench near the entrance that honors my mother.
We are all Newtowners because it's the place that represents the best of America, yet now, "There's going to be a black cloud over this area forever," one parent of a Newtown toddler not involved in the shooting told reporters. But I'd suggest that the real black cloud is over my current home of Washington, DC. At the vigil service Sunday night, the President said that Newtown's bravery inspires us to a call for thoughtful action.
Yet back in Washington, the contrast to Newtown's bravery lay in stark relief. Unlike the fearless teachers who used themselves as human shields against the gunman, this weekend, all 31 Senators who've received an "A" rating from the NRA refused to even go on "Meet the Press" to discuss their positions. The NRA itself went radio silent, taking down its Facebook page and halting its tweets.
Perched aloft a 110-foot flagpole in the center of Newtown is an oversized American flag that's waved in the wind as long as I can remember, an unfaltering inspiration. Many years ago, I wandered inside the town hall to meet the woman responsible for the flags, which have flown over the town since 1876. Like a modern-day Betsy Ross, she explained how the flags often get battered and weathered, and how they must take them down, repair them before using again, and how no matter what, there's a flag up there, every day, including this one. Especially now.
Generation after generation, day after day, Newtown has been steadfast for America. Now, America must be steadfast for a grieving Newtown. If we want to move past this tragedy, Washington leaders must show a fraction of the courage offered Friday by the women and children of Sandy Hook Elementary and listen to the calls for action by the grieving families and friends of this proud town.