On July 6, 1944, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus came to town in Hartford, Connecticut. This was a very special treat for people who had been suffering the deprivations of World War II, and it brought with it a great deal of excitement and anticipation. In fact, 7,000 people came from all over the state to enjoy the show. Little did they know they would soon be a part of one of the most horrific fires in this nation’s history.
In order to make the big top waterproof it had been treated with paraffin, a type of wax, which had been dissolved in gasoline–thousands of gallons of the stuff, in fact. So when the fire started, the entire tent went up like a roman candle. Some say the fire was caused by the careless disposal of a cigarette butt. Others said it was due to arson. Nothing was ever proved. But the result was that at least 167 people were killed, and more than 700 people were injured.
People were trampled. People were suffocated. People were set ablaze as the burning wax dropped down from above, or the straw covered floor burst into flames below their feet. Parents were separated from their children. Some people acted heroically and saved women and children, and others, like the sailor who was so desperate to get out that he broke a woman’s jaw to get past her, showed a more shameful side. Almost every community in Connecticut suffered some sort of loss due to this tragedy. Bodies, and indeed body parts, had to be laid out like cord wood for identification, and the lines wrapped around the building for days on end as family members anxiously tried to find relatives. It was a ghastly disaster.
Charles Nelson Reilly was 13 at the time, and experienced this disaster firsthand. Even though he went on to direct plays on Broadway, he studiously avoided large crowds for the rest of his life. The sound of a crowd would too often remind him of that frightening day.
And yet, if you surveyed 1000 people today, I’d be amazed if more than 25 of them knew about this incident. In fact, I was born and raised in Connecticut, and I didn’t know about it until I read The Circus Fire by Stewart O’Nan. I highly recommend this book, but be warned: some of the photographs and personal accounts will break your heart.
When these types of events occur in this modern world, they loom larger than they ever have before because we are now a global community. In 1944, we didn’t have twitter or facebook or, indeed, the internet. We couldn’t take electronic photos and transmit them around the world in a flash. Fewer people ever knew about the big top fire, and when people in other countries learned about it, it was most likely already weeks in the past. I’m sure that made it much easier for many people to say, “Oh, what a shame,” and then move on. There were gestures of support then, most definitely, but not on the scale that we are seeing for the people of Newtown today. Now we have instant outpourings of grief and support from Peru to Pakistan, and prayers from around the world. This, I think, is good. It’s healthy. It assures us that we are all in this together. We, as humans, are very good at comforting each other, and I believe we are all the better for it.
On the other hand, this ability we have these days to have “all the news, all the time, live and in color” makes the world seem like a much more terrifying place. We feel that the world is more violent, that humanity is more evil, that tragedy strikes with more frequency. In fact, this is not the case. According to FBI Data housed by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, our homicide rate is the lowest it has been in 40 years. A great article posted on Wired.Com on December 18th, 2012 entitled “Thoughts After Sandy Hook: We Are the Safest We’ve Been in 40 Years” gives a great deal of insight into these statistics. According to it, crime statistics in general have gone way, way down, due in part to the increasing science and training available to people in the criminal justice field. However, our ability to access information has increased, and that, I think, is what has increased our anxiety to an enormous degree.
We were all shocked and horrified as we watched the towers fall on 9/11. If you say “Katrina” or “Columbine” or “Tsunami” or “Rwanda”, everyone will know exactly what you are talking about. And now, to our everlasting regret, “Sandy Hook” will be added to this awful lexicon. But as embarrassing as it is to admit, most of us no longer think about 9/11 on a daily basis. Like it or not, life has a funny way of moving on. That is the nature of things. Just as your body, thank goodness, can’t remember exactly how excruciating pain feels after the fact, I believe our brains can only hang on to tragic events for so long. If all the tragic events we learn about were to accumulate and remain in the forefront of our minds, we would all surely go mad, or be crushed by the sheer weight of our despair. So unless you’re directly affected, unless you experience a personal loss, time and distance serve to soften the blow eventually. This helps to ensure our sanity as well as our survival. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.
We want to remember tragedies. We want to learn from them, we want to prevent similar events in the future. We want to comfort and support the survivors. We want to believe, and I DO believe, that the vast majority of us are better than this. The fact that we are horrified by what happened at Sandy Hook says a lot of very positive things about who we are as members of the human race. That may be one of the few good things that comes out of a calamity of this magnitude. We will investigate everything that led up to this event. We will debate about ways in which it may have been prevented, and what we can do to stop this madness in the future. We will offer grief counseling to the witnesses. We will make speeches. We will offer support to the Newtown community in a lot of wonderful and creative ways. The very best of us will take action to improve the world. Most importantly, we will try as best we can to explain it all to our children. But when all is said and done, we will move on. We have to.
So, yes, hug your children a little tighter tonight. But remember that, unfortunately, there will always be very good reasons to do so. Let’s not wait for a tragedy to reach out to one another. Let’s try to make it a habit to provide comfort and support and a feeling safety to the ones that we love, and, indeed, to the larger community. Because we can. Because we must. Because in a world where we are bombarded with negativity, our sense of humanity can last beyond the latest news cycle.