When Sandy Hook meets Hurricane Sandy

"These two tragedies stretch beyond partisan bickering, and enter an entirely new realm on its own."

Sandy Hook Elementary memorial 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)
Sandy Hook Elementary memorial 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)
The recent shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School has exposed the vulnerabilities of all Americans, again.  Like the Sandy before it, the recent natural disaster that ripped through the East Coast of the United States, this massacre has forced the American people to feel something that seems unnatural.  It is as if, for the first time in recent memory, “rugged individualism” is taking a backseat, and an American national identity is finally coming to fruition.
Prior tragedies, such as the September 11th terrorist attacks, have also brought America together, but it was different.  We had a foreign enemy to unite against, to hate and to despise.  Sandy 1 and Sandy 2 has forced us to not blame a people in a distant land, rather to challenge our own citizens and our own culture.
The millions of people who suffered from Hurricane Sandy, which includes my parents, have come to realize the nature of their enemy.  They saw a government that was unprepared to assist them; insurance companies that were far from eager to help them, and mega-monopolies that lacked any semblance of efficiency and failed to quickly restore the livelihoods of those who were suffering.  “Rugged individualism” does not sound that attractive when it is you that is unable to rebuild your home.
Similarly, the massacre of nearly 30 people in Sandy Hook Elementary has sent shockwaves throughout all 50 States.  At first, the shooter was the main source of everyone’s anger, but people now realize that he is dead, yet the 2nd Amendment is still alive. 
Ever since the massacre, the veil of ignorance that had covered the right of every American citizen to “bear arms” has been lifted, and its pure nakedness is horrifying to the American public.  For the first time in years, gun control legislation is at the top of the agenda again.
Nevertheless, we have to ask ourselves, what is more troubling?  The fact that 47% of American citizens own at least one gun, or the fact that it took the massacre of 20 elementary school children to get people to care about gun control?  The answer lies in a little bit of both.
This is one of many reasons why we must change the intellectual discourse about the character of our society.  Americans often debate about issues on a liberal versus conservative dimension, but these two tragedies stretch beyond partisan bickering, and enter an entirely new realm on its own. 
This is a moral debate, between those who put themselves before their neighbors and those who put their neighbors before themselves.  Between those who, for fear of losing their semi-automatic weapons, will now donate to the National Rifle Association, and those who have been attending memorial services across the country for children that they never met.  Between those who should be assisting the victims of Hurricane Sandy but chose not to, and those who choose to help the victims even though they did not need to.
Now it is the time that we, the American people, must stand up and change our collective identity.  In this time of mourning, let us ensure that the victims of these tragedies did not suffer in vain.  Before another story dominates the major media outlets, and we forget everything that we have learned, we must make a real and effective change in our societal fabric.
“Rugged individualism” needs to be replaced with something more moral, a phrase that does not invoke the image of impoverished “Hoovervilles” that stretched across our nation during the Great Depression.  It should inspire us as Americans to be truly compassionate to the less fortunate, and even to the more fortunate.  It should also move us to consider the long-term implications of our actions, and to understand that sometimes sweeping changes are necessary for the betterment of our society.
As a start, let us call our new identity rugged nationalism, an idea based on the fact that the American people will always stand together as one nation, through both the good and the bad.  The fact that no enemy, neither foreign nor domestic, will inhibit our resolve to combat evil in this world.   The fact that United States means United States.
When we pledge allegiance to the flag, let us not simply promise to give “Liberty and justice for all.”  Let’s do it.This writer can be reached at michael.harris@nyu.edu.