December 19, 2012

Whither Sandy Hook Elementary?

This morning, NPR reported that Sandy Hook Elementary will be closed for months and may never reopen. I already knew that surviving faculty and students were being shuffled off to a nearby mothballed school and wondered if that was absolutely necessary. On reflection, I realized that Sandy Hook is a crime scene and a building scarred by blood and bullets. Police (and Newtown residents) want to learn all the details they can about Friday’s massacre, and the building surely needs to be cleaned up before it can be re-occupied.

Sandy Hook Elementary School
Sandy Hook Elementary School

I am distressed, though, by the thought that the school might never re-open. In recent years, Americans have shown an inclination to abandon sites of tragedies and turn them into memorials. This is an easy path to take when there has been substantial destruction at a site, such as in the cases of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City or the World Trade Center in New York. After the shooting at the Aurora, Colorado, cinema, there were calls to close the Century Aurora 16 permanently . (The theater is being renovated, however, and is scheduled to reopen soon.) The Columbine High School library, where 13 students died, was demolished and turned into a memorial, though the school remains open. After a small child fell from an observation platform at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium and was mauled by African painted dogs below, there were calls to close the exhibit and send the surviving dogs to another zoo. It was decided instead to remove the viewing area from which the boy fell “out of respect for the community and for the Derkosh family [that of the boy who fell].”

Will Sandy Hook Elementary School be demolished and turned into a memorial “out of respect for the community and the families of the victims”? I sincerely hope not. It is a substantial facility and community asset, and its loss would be unfortunate. (See photo above.) That is not to say that no memorial should be erected to acknowledge the Newtown tragedy, but we need to keep matters in perspective. Not every awful event deserves to have acres of real estate devoted to its memory or to have associated structures forever removed from public view.

Are we becoming a nation of extravagant monuments? Do we need—and can we afford—all these memorials? I don’t doubt that many family members of Newtown victims will never want to enter (or even see) Sandy Hook Elementary again. Some may choose to move to another town. But do the rest of us have such refined sensitivities that we never again want to see or use Sandy Hook Elementary?

Memorials have their place, but so many recent ones have been costly, both to construct and in lost opportunity costs represented by land and structures taken out of normal productive use. At least some of that money that might be poured into memorials could be used to relieve other instances of human suffering or to memoralize significant events that have not benefited from our current passion for monuments. (The Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire still awaits a memorial.)

Sometimes an appropriate memorial is just a brass plaque by the side of the road.

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