Releasing 911 Sandy Hook Tapes Retraumatizes Newtown

A crisis expert who grew up in Newtown argues that the costs of listening to the tapes outweigh the benefits.

  • Share
  • Read Later
Mike Segar / Reuters

Wooden angel figures stand in a wooded area near Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 16, 2012, to honor the victims of the school shooting

Newtown’s emblem—a rooster called the chanticleer—watches over our small New England community from its perch as the weathervane of our white Meeting House. It has several bullet holes in it; a common myth claims that they date from the Revolutionary War, when troops used it for target practice. For those of us who grew up in Newtown, the chanticleer represents the heart of our town, and those bullet holes symbolize the hardships we faced during our three-century struggle to preserve a community where town meetings are still one of the means by which we make decisions.

One year ago, a young man added twenty-seven more holes to the heart of our town, robbing us of twenty innocent children, the lives of six dedicated educators, and a mother whose struggles to raise a child with mental illness may never be fully known.

Faced with this tragedy, Newtowners did what our stalwart Yankee forebears taught us to do: we came together. Those of us who live in other cities reached back home. Thousands joined in our grief and our healing, offering support such I have seen rarely in a career in crisis response.

Yesterday, after all this healing, my town released the tapes of the 911 calls from the event under orders from the State of Connecticut. Having seen the trauma of crisis up close, I fear that hearing the voices on these tapes will re-open wounds, not just for the families of the educators and children who died, but also for those who responded to the school. Like most towns around this nation, Newtown’s emergency services community is a mix of professionals and volunteers. When the media cherry picks the most heart-wrenching soundbites from the tapes and puts them on infinite replay, what are we asking these dedicated men and women to relive? What are we asking their families to endure?

While citizens in other parts of the country can change the channel, my friends and family will not be so lucky. Next week, journalists will descend on our small town and ask us how we feel about the anniversary of the event. The interviews will include the inevitable question, “have you listened to the tapes?”

What will follow is beyond our control. The media will enable the same unproductive dynamic that began last year. Gun rights advocates—fearing that any airtime dedicated to the shooting’s anniversary will be used to promote gun control—will counter with exaggerated language to rally supporters to the cause. Once again, my town and a growing list of other municipalities will have to endure being shaped into a pawn in a larger political battle.

The New Englander in me wants all this attention to fade so that our town can continue to heal. But the Newtowner in me yearns for something more.

As a boy, my role models were the first responders and educators who showed us the joy of service to a greater good. Working together, they taught us how think through problems systematically, cooperate in teams, overcome adversity, and, when necessary, sacrifice to protect what you hold most dear. Last year, these role models became heroes when they gave their lives or risked their deaths to save their students and colleagues. These heroes, and the fallen children that they tried to protect, are now as much symbols of Newtown’s struggle to keep our tight-knit community as any founding myth.

As a nation, it is time to honor their sacrifice. We need to come together for a national town meeting: a forum for all of us to engage in a difficult conversation about how to strengthen the communities that bullets are ripping asunder.

In this dialogue, there will be a tendency to see a complex problem through the lens of a single issue. If we allow this to happen, we will break into factions and nothing will get done. When we begin to splinter, let us remember that these heroes did not lay down their lives for or against the Second Amendment. They sacrificed themselves to protect our children. Our obligation is nothing less than to follow their lead: to ensure that our schools are safe places where our children learn how to become citizens in a nation where the balance of individual rights and the common good is a constant struggle.

There will be no easy answers. Mental health care played as much a role in this shooting as the availability of a combat weapon. Fixing just one or the other will have little impact. As a nation, we need to stand up and face the multiple root causes that together are allowing these mass killings to happen year after year.

When we engage in this debate, let’s no longer hide from a difficult truth: any solution will require sacrifice and compromise. We will need to face our mental health care crisis. We will need to make it more difficult for unstable individuals to obtain weapons. And we may even need to consider what it means to have a citizenry armed not just for self protection and hunting, but for combat operations.

Let our memories of Newtown not be of tapes, but the moment when we as a nation chose to build upon the interrupted mission of the educators who put themselves between a gun and the students in their care. We, the living, must now engage in deep reflection on which sacrifices we are willing make to protect the traditions and values that these heroes have sanctified and preserved for us. Our children and our future deserve nothing less. As Newtown’s chanticleer has done for centuries, it is our turn to watch over the next generation with bullet holes in our hearts and a determined vigilance to protect that which we hold most dear.


John Crowley grew up in Newtown and is a research affiliate at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, where he works to improve coordination during crisis response and stability operations. He has been a consultant to the National Defense University, NATO, U.N. agencies, the World Bank, and humanitarian NGOs. The views expressed are solely his own.