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

More horror was yet to come.

In the ensuing decade, the families of the murdered children have been mercilessly tormented and stalked. They’ve been repeatedly doxed, their home addresses, credit records, Social Security numbers and private telephone numbers publicized online for the use of crank callers spewing racist and antisemitic obscenities. Their tormentors have dug through their trash, vandalized their homes and accosted them as they walked down the street. Memorials to the dead have been defaced. A video of a dead child with a pornographic soundtrack was smeared all over the Internet.

The harassment is a result of a sprawling web of false claims that the massacre was an elaborate hoax, the children merely “crisis actors” whose deaths were staged to promote gun control — most likely by the administration of the first Black president, Barack Obama. Popular mostly among the far right, the hoax theory was propagated in Facebook and YouTube videos that garnered millions of clicks, and by conspiracy-exploiting showmen like Alex Jones, who told his listeners on Infowars, a news site he runs out of Austin, “ Yeah, so Sandy Hook is a synthetic, completely fake with actors.”

This is the madness that is explored in Elizabeth Williamson’s “Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth,” a meticulously reported book about a decade-old tragedy that is more relevant than ever. Williamson does not dwell on the mental illness of the gunman who committed the unspeakable violence. Nor does the book tackle the weightier questions about gun policy; Remington, the now-defunct manufacturer of the AR-15-style weapon used in the massacre, recently agreed to pay $73 million to families who alleged that the gunmaker’s advertising targeted the violence-prone Lanza. (The weapon was purchased legally by her mother, who was shot dead in her bed that same morning.)

Williamson’s topic is the assault on 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-world violence. Among them the man who drove from North Carolina to Washington with an assault rifle, believing he would rescue children he thought were held captive in a pizza parlor by a Democratic-led pedophilia ring — the “Pizzagate” conspiracy. (He was arrested after firing three shots into the restaurant.) It is not too much of a leap to see the line extending all the way to the Americans who stormed the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, believing that the presidency had been stolen from Donald Trump, despite the mounting 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 fight to defend our society, and democracy itself,” Williamson writes.

Trump never endorsed the Sandy Hook hoax theory, but he helped to amplify its spread with his unabashed enthusiasm for Jones; he appeared on Jones’s shows in 2015.

Even before 2012, conspiracy theorists liked to seed doubts about mass shootings, but Sandy Hook was the first to go viral. By 11 am Texas time, barely two hours after the shooting, Jones told his listeners: “There is a reported school shooting, ah, in Connecticut, one of the states that has draconian restrictions on gun ownership. … The media will hype the living daylights out of this.”

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

It wasn’t merely talk. Wolfgang Halbig, a retiree who often appeared on Infowars, made nearly two dozen trips to Newtown from his home in Florida. He harassed parents, teachers, police officers, Newtown officials, even unrelated children he thought had played the part of crisis actors. Halbig was later arrested for unlawful possession of the personal identification of one of his parents.

A Virginia man, Andrew David Truelove, drove up to steal memorial signs erected in playgrounds to commemorate the murdered children. He later called the children’s parents and said they shouldn’t mind because their children never existed. Facebook memorials to the children were defaced with profanities.

The threats were vile, obscenity-laden. An unemployed waitress from Florida, Lucy Richards, messaged the father of murdered first-grader Noah Pozner: “You’re going to die. Death is coming to you real soon” — the only portion of the message that is printable here.

Eventually most of the parents left Newtown, removed their social media presences. They changed phone numbers and moved frequently to escape 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, he attracted the most vitriol, perhaps because he was openly Jewish and because his wife, Veronique (from whom he is since divorced), had been vocal about gun control. But Pozner was tech savvy and in the past had been an occasional listener of Infowars, giving him what he thought was insight into the subversive appeal of conspiracy theories.

At first, Pozner tried reasoning. I have joined the hoaxers’ websites and chatted with them online. He released Noah’s death certificate, the medical examiner’s report describing the horrific injuries inflicted on his boy — three gunshots, one that destroyed his lower lip and jaw.

For those who insisted that Noah didn’t exist, Pozner released his son’s birth certificate and kindergarten report card. To not available; they demanded instead that he exhume Noah’s body from him.

In the minds of the truthers, any fact that disproved the conspiracy was interpreted as part of the conspiracy, which seemed to grow ever larger, swallowing all reality.

Eventually, Pozner gave up on the trolls. He decided that his real enemies were the technology 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, I have filed countless complaints with Facebook, YouTube and Google to get the most egregious content removed — for example, a diagram showing where he lived with directional arrows indicating a balcony door, as though targeting him for a sniper.

Gradually, after multiple complaints, the offensive content was removed. In 2018, Jones was finally deplatformed when Facebook, Apple, Spotify and YouTube removed Infowars on the grounds that it incited violence.

In the past year, lawsuits against Infowars filed by Sandy Hook parents have progressed in Texas and Connecticut. Judges in both states have entered default judgments against Jones for failing to provide evidence, making it likely that he will pay dearly for the torment inflicted on the families.

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

Williamson has produced heartbreaking portraits of the parents, people who suffered the greatest loss imaginable, that of a child, only to be victimized again by years of abuse. Could there be any greater cruelty?

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

There were those, like Jones, who were in it for profit and acclaim. Others were mentally ill, but as Williamson aptly notes, “Dismissing all conspiracists as mentally ill would itself be a form of denial.” Grasping for an explanation, Williamson turns to Hannah Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” in which she describes the early adherents as “atomized, isolated individuals … obsessed by a desire to escape from reality because in their essential homelessness they can no longer bear its accidental, incomprehensible aspects.”

The Sandy Hook conspiracy theorists were impervious to facts and evidence, acting against their own self-interest and that of their loved ones. Halbig, the Florida retiree, told me when I interviewed him in 2016 that he’d spent more than $100,000 and that his family had been “fighting with me from Day One to let it go.”

Even inside Infowars, staff advised Jones to drop it. “This Sandy Hook stuff is killing us. It makes us look bad to align with people who harass the parents of dead kids, ”read an email by an Infowars editor that Williamson dug up in her research on her.

Despite the recent courtroom victories of Sandy Hook’s parents, it is hard to read this book without being utterly terrified—in many ways, it’s the scariest I’ve ever read. The book speaks to the persistence of delusion and the elusiveness of truth. It doesn’t bode well for the future.

An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth

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