Book review of Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Fight for the Truth by Elizabeth Williamson

More horrors were to come.

In the following ten years, the families of the murdered children were mercilessly tortured and persecuted. They have been repeatedly doxed, their home addresses, credit records, social security numbers and home phone numbers posted online to use racist and anti-Semitic profanity from callers. Their tormentors have been going through their garbage, vandalizing their homes and attacking them as they walk down the street. Monuments to the dead were defaced. A video of a dead child with a pornographic soundtrack has been smeared across the internet.

The harassment is the result of a widespread web of false claims that the massacre was an elaborate hoax, that the children were merely “crisis actors” whose deaths were staged to promote gun control – most likely by the administration of first black President Barack Obama. The hoax theory was particularly popular with the extreme right and was circulated in Facebook and YouTube videos that garnered millions of views and by showmen exploiting conspiracies such as Alex Jones, who told his listeners on Infowars, a news site, which he runs out of Austin, said, “Yeah, so Sandy Hook is a synthetic, completely fake actor.”

This is the madness explored in Elizabeth Williamson’s Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Struggle for Truth a meticulously reported book about a decades-old tragedy that is more relevant than ever. Williamson does not address the mental illness of the shooter who committed the unspeakable violence. The book also does not address the more important issues of gun policy; Remington, the now-defunct maker of the AR-15-style gun used in the massacre, recently agreed to pay $73 million to families who claimed the gunmaker’s advertising was aimed at the violent Lanza aims. (The gun was legally purchased from his mother, who was shot in her bed that same morning.)

Williamson’s theme is the attack on the truth. The author, a reporter for the New York Times, draws a direct line between the “Sandy Hook Truthers” – as they called themselves – and subsequent conspiracy theorists whose delusions spilled from the confines of the internet into real violence. Among them the man who drove from North Carolina to Washington with an assault rifle believing he was rescuing children he believed were being held captive in a pizza parlor by a Democratic-run pedophilia ring – the “Pizzagate” conspiracy became. (He was arrested after firing three shots into the restaurant.) It’s not too much of a leap to see the line stretching to the Americans who stormed the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 and believed , the presidency was stolen from Donald Trump, despite the increasing weight of court rulings that it was not. “The struggle to defend objective truth against people who consciously choose to deny or distort it has become a struggle to defend our society and democracy itself,” Williamson writes.

Trump has never endorsed Sandy Hook’s mumbo-jumbo theory, but he has helped fuel its spread with his undaunted enthusiasm for Jones; he appeared on Jones 2015 show.

Even before 2012, conspiracy theorists were fond of sowing doubts about mass shootings, but Sandy Hook was the first to go viral. At 11 a.m. Texas time, barely two hours after the shooting, Jones told his audience, “There’s a reported school shooting, ah, in Connecticut, one of the states that has draconian gun restrictions. … The media will make a hype out of it.”

Then shortly after: “Why do governments stage these things? To get our guns!” At the time of the funerals, Jones openly mocked the parents, mocking their looks and gestures and claiming their children didn’t exist.

It wasn’t just talk. Wolfgang Halbig, a retiree who often appeared on Infowars, made nearly two dozen trips from his home in Florida to Newtown. He molested parents, teachers, police officers, Newtown officials, and even unrelated children whom he believed had played the role of crisis actors. Halbig was later arrested for unlawfully possessing a parent’s identification card.

A Virginia man, Andrew David Truelove, drove up to steal plaques placed in playgrounds to commemorate the murdered children. He later called the children’s parents and said not to mind because their children never existed. Facebook memorials to the children were defaced with profanity.

The threats were heinous, full of obscenity. An unemployed Florida waitress, Lucy Richards, wrote to the father of murdered first grader Noah Pozner: “You’re going to die. Death is coming to you very soon” – the only part of the message that can be printed here.

Eventually, most parents left Newtown and removed their social media presences. They changed their phone numbers and moved frequently to avoid harassment.

One father decided to fight back hard: Lenny Pozner, who emerges as the protagonist of Williamson’s book. The father of the youngest victim, his 6-year-old son Noah, attracted most of the trouble, perhaps because he was openly Jewish and because his wife Veronique (whom he has since divorced) had been vocal in support of gun control. But Pozner was tech-savvy and had occasionally listened to Infowars in the past, which he thought gave him insight into the subversive appeal of conspiracy theories.

At first Pozner tried to argue. He joined scammers’ websites and chatted with them online. He released Noah’s death certificate, the coroner’s report that describes the horrific injuries inflicted on his boy – three shots, one that destroyed his lower lip and jaw.

For those who insisted Noah didn’t exist, Pozner released his son’s birth certificate and kindergarten report card. For free; Instead, they demanded that he exhume Noah’s body.

In the minds of the truth-believers, every fact that disproved the conspiracy was interpreted as part of the conspiracy that seemed to be growing and engulfing all of reality.

Eventually, Pozner gave up on the trolls. He decided his real enemies were the tech companies hiding behind Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields them from liability for content posted by users. With a network of volunteers, he filed countless complaints on Facebook, YouTube and Google to have the most egregious content removed — for example, a diagram showing where he lived with directional arrows pointing to a balcony door as if he were opening target a sniper.

After several complaints, the offending content was gradually removed. In 2018, Jones was finally deplatformed when Facebook, Apple, Spotify and YouTube removed Infowars on the grounds that it incited violence.

Over the past year, lawsuits filed by Sandy Hook’s parents against Infowars in Texas and Connecticut have made headway. Judges in both states have entered default judgments against Jones for failing to produce evidence, making it likely he will pay dearly for the torture inflicted on families.

The book ends on a triumphant note. “I’m ready to move on. … I won,” says Pozner to Williamson.

Williamson has created heartbreaking portraits of the parents, people who have suffered the greatest loss imaginable, that of a child, only to fall victim once again to years of abuse. Can there be a greater cruelty?

As for the trolls, it was clearly harder to understand what made them tick. Good journalists always try to empathize with the people they write about to understand their way of thinking, even if they don’t agree with them. My feeling is that Williams struggled to understand her — just as I did when I wrote about Sandy Hook in 2017.

There were people like Jones who were there for profit and recognition. Others were mentally ill, but as Williamson aptly notes, “To dismiss all conspiracy theorists as mentally ill would itself be a form of denial.” Seeking an explanation, Williamson turns to Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, in which she describes the early adherents as “atomized, isolated individuals … obsessed with a desire to escape from reality because in their basic homelessness they can no longer bear it, describes random, incomprehensible aspects.”

Sandy Hook conspiracy theorists were inaccessible to facts and evidence and acted against their own best interests and those of their loved ones. Halbig, the Florida retiree, told me when I interviewed him in 2016 that he spent more than $100,000 and that his family “fought with me from day one to let it go.”

Even within Infowars, staff advised Jones to drop it. “This Sandy Hook stuff is killing us. It makes us look bad when we associate with people who molest the parents of dead children,” said an email from an Infowars editor unearthed by Williamson in her research.

Despite Sandy Hook’s parents’ recent court successes, it’s hard to read this book without being utterly terrified — in many ways it’s the scariest book I’ve read. The book speaks of the stubbornness of deception and the incomprehensibility of truth. It doesn’t bode well for the future.

An American Tragedy and the Fight for the Truth

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