The children’s first names were known to their kin, to those who named them.
And as President Barack Obama methodically spoke these names, his cadence was answered by the wailing cries of women from the auditorium’s front row, reserved for the family of the slain.
These notes of mourning seemed to understand, and amplify, the finality of a presidential roll call.
“Charlotte. Daniel. Olivia. Josephine. Anna. Dylan. Madeline. Beth. Chase. Jesse. James. Grace. Emilie. Jack. Noah. Caroline. Jessica. Benjamin. Avielle. Alison,” Obama said at the close of his remarks tonight in Newtown, Connecticut, where 20 children and six adults were killed by a young gunman. Forty-one syllables representing 20 slain children.
“God has called them all,” Obama said. “To those of us who remain, let us find the strength to carry on.”
It was the crescendo to a speech that began with Obama quoting Cornithians. He then read the names of the six adults who died when a shooter, identified by police as Adam Lanza, 20, burst into Sandy Hook Elementary School and opened fire in two first-grade classrooms.
“Dawn Hocksprung and Mary Sherlach, Vicki Soto, Lauren Russeau, Rachel Davino and Anne Marie Murphy,” Obama said of the principal and four teachers and a counselor there. “They responded as we all hope we might respond in such terrifying circumstances, with courage and with love, giving their lives to protect the children in their care.”
Before the vigil, the president met privately with the families of the victims and with the emergency workers first to arrive at the scene of the massacre.
Meanwhile, the auditorium was filling up, with children long past the Santa age, clutching stuffed dogs that volunteers handed them outside. Others wrapped themselves in blankets from the Red Cross, huddling with their mothers or fathers after waiting in the cold.
The six boxes of tissues at the main entrance did not seem adequate for the mourning at hand. Burly firemen fought back tears. Infants fussed and cried, oblivious to the loss of the community that is welcoming them.
And as the president cited the heroism of the school staff and pledged to honor the spirit of the dead, he seemed to be questioning himself as much as he was challenging the country’s political institutions.
“I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days,” he said. “We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change.”
“Can we honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep our children, all of them, safe from harm,” he asked.
The answer hung in the auditorium of 950 seats.
“Can we claim, as a nation, that we’re all together there, letting them know they are loved and teaching them to love in return?” he prodded.
The president avoided any overt discussion of policy and he did not offer any specifics on the action — or if it would be legislative or administrative — that he would pursue.
But he hinted that action was to come.
“No single law, no set of laws, can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society,” he said. “But that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely we can do better than this.”