Now and then, thanks to the strange intimacy of technology, there are times in modern American lives when our most momentous and harrowing experiences have been shared.
In the days when radios were still furniture, we listened and poured out into the streets on V-E Day and V-J Day. Comforted by Walter Cronkite's voice, we mourned around the collective video campfire when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Through the eyes of correspondents in the desert, we watched during the first Gulf War as the Scuds and Patriot missiles streaked through the skies.
The world is more fragmented now, the national watercooler a relic of another, rapidly receding age. Now we can choose, sometimes right down to the word, what information we receive. We can surround ourselves with the likeminded, or we can dive into oceans of opposition and try to hold our own. Where once we only listened and watched, now, by the millions, we shout.
Sometimes it seems that we share so little. And yet, amid all of this fragmentation, some things still stop us in our tracks, make us think, make us talk, make us look to each other, make us feel as if, somehow, we're one in shock and tragedy.
"There's no words," said Richard Wilford, the father of a second-grader who survived. But, of course, there were. In the post-my-status-update, have-my-say America where we now live, there are always words.
A president, the father of two daughters, tried to summon them, delivering a statement on behalf of the country and struggling not to weep. The familiar, antiseptic words of police officials and the stammerings of shaken parents played out on multiple cable networks. And, of course, Americans talked amongst themselves, too: Tweet after tweet and post after post - millions of them by midafternoon - united people in an inadvertently crowd-sourced attempt to make sense of the unfathomable.
Why? Because, as Barack Obama said Friday afternoon, "these neighborhoods are our neighborhoods, and these children are our children."
Words like "our" and "we" - the "we" of that famous phrase "We, the people," not incidentally - can sometimes seem hard to come by in America these days. Division, not unity, feels like the dominant trait.
But one of the pieces of common ground we still seize - no matter how much we differ on the methods - is the welfare of, and deep love of, our children. And the abrupt loss of 20 of them seemed, for an afternoon, to stop a nation cold.