Last Friday afternoon, in the wake of the unfathomable tragedy that struck the community of Newtown, Conn., Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels directed that flags throughout the state be flown at half-staff until sunset Tuesday.
I live near the Indiana Statehouse, in a small apartment with a clear view of the building. As I watched the flag that sits atop the Statehouse lowered that afternoon, I felt a convulsion of grief.
It must have felt that way for so many Americans.
The flag on our state Capitol was lowered in accordance with a directive from President Barack Obama. As a sign of respect for the 20 schoolchildren and six adults who were, as the president’s proclamation stated, “victims of the senseless acts of violence” of a gunman, the flags on public buildings and grounds across the land came down, down, down before finally resting at half-staff.
So, too — in a collective act of grief — came down the flags at all U.S. embassies, consulates, military bases, naval stations and other American government facilities around the world.
The tradition of the flags flown at half-staff, and half-mast on ships and at naval stations ashore, is rich and deep, dating back centuries. There are protocols for how and when it should be done — hoisting it to the peak before lowering it; leaving it lowered for 30 days on the death of president, for example — but mostly it’s about symbolism: It is a sign of national mourning.
Collective grief seems the right thing now. Before the rush to judgment about gun laws, before the calls to arm every schoolteacher or disarm every American, before the inevitably ugly political debates that will soon ensue, we need to feel the grief.
I suspect like so many Americans, I spent most of my weekend parceling out time for the news, dipping in for minutes at a time before turning away from the television, putting away the newspaper, and turning off my computer.