Horror has been met with heroism again and again, whether the mass shooting was in a church or at a movie theater or in a nightclub or at a music festival or at a military facility or at a constituent meeting or on a college campus or inside a high school or even in an elementary school.
As surely as there is a monstrous maniac with a weapon once again manifesting the worst in us, there is at least one brave soul who demonstrates the best in us by rushing unarmed into gunfire or shielding innocents with his or her body or helping others to safety when a less selfless person would just flee.
At Sandy Hook Elementary School, one of the heroes was 6-year-old Jesse Lewis, who had just seen his first-grade teacher murdered when the gunman’s assault rifle jammed.
That gave Jesse a moment in which he could have fled and saved himself. He instead called to the classmates who stood terrified in the corner, holding hands.
“Run!” Jesse shouted.
The gunman used the moment to reload. He fired and Jesse was killed before he could escape to safety along with his classmates.
Six of them, four boys and two girls, only stopped running when they came to the yard of a small yellow frame house built 45 years before the ratification of the Second Amendment. They sat in a circle on the lawn, crying.
“We can’t go back to school,” one of the boys reportedly told the homeowner. “Our teacher is gone.”
The homeowner brought them inside and took out some stuffed animals he keeps for his grandchildren and began calling parents. One little girl sat clutching a toy dog, silently staring out a window until her mother came.
“A big gun,” one of the boys said of the killer’s assault rifle.
At Jesse’s funeral, the dimensions of his coffin made his heroism in the face of that big gun seem all the more remarkable.
“No coffin should be that small,” a mourner remarked.
Nineteen other youngsters perished with Jesse, along with his teacher and five other adult staff members, a number of them also heroes . The children were all 6 or 7 years old and the only way to bear looking at their photos was to hope that meaningful change would now finally come.
But between the extremes of what is America at its deranged worst and America at its noble best there is the America that just proceeds heedlessly along as if there is nothing to be done, as if the supposed right to own a weapon capable of mass slaughter preempts the right not to be shot by one. The carnage went on, the toll of mass shootings since Sandy Hook reaching 1,855 this September, with 2,067 dead and 7,825 wounded.
Yet there were always heroes. A gunman killed 49 at a nightclub in Orlando in 2016, but in the aftermath there was talk of how Edward “Top Hat Eddie” Sotomayor died ensuring his lover escaped harm and how a mother of 11 named Brenda Lee McCool died while pushing her 21-year-old son to safety.
Another gunman killed 59 in Las Vegas in 2017, but there were numerous acts of courage, including at least two instances when people were shot while using their bodies to shield a loved one. An off-duty firefighter named Steve Keys was shot while administering CPR to a wounded woman, but later marveled not at his own bravery, but at that of the cops he saw racing straight into gunfire.
And the worst in us is met by the best in us and the struggle continues between horror and hope.