Are campus shootings the new norm?
“If the world is where we hide from ourselves, what do we do when the world is no longer accessible? We invent a false name, invent a destiny, purchase a firearm through the mail."- Don DeLillo, "Libra."
On the morning of June 7, 2013 I walked up the steps of the campus library and came across my friend, former Film Club president Miguel Corona. After speaking about movies, a habit we have whenever we come across each other on campus, we parted ways as we entered the library. He went upstairs, I went to the bottom floor computer lab.
That day I had a final exam later in the afternoon and was preparing to look over some notes I planned to print out. One never expects to be swept into a tragic moment, which is why tragedies disturb us so much.
After a half hour of surfing the internet and exchanging texts, I heard a distant "boom" outside. It sounded like a car crash. A moment later, a chorus of intense screams came in from the library's first floor and the students who had been sitting in chairs or by tables turned into a wave of bodies rushing down into the bottom floor. Some grabbed their backpacks, others simply ran. I stood up and grabbed my laptop as a student told me with a paled expression that someone was inside with a gun.
We ran out the back emergency exits of the library and the crowd soon spread out like a scene out of "The Battle Of Algiers." I made my way to the side of Pico facing the campus as the sound of approaching helicopters and sirens filled the air.
During the course of the day the details emerged of John Zawahri's rampage that began with the murder of his father and brother and culminated with three deaths at SMC. It was a tragedy unlike any the college had faced before. But part of that tragedy is the fact that it was not wholly unimaginable.
Zawahri was but one of a gallery of young men who have stormed their schools, driven by fantasies of blood and fire, to vent unknown or irrational grievances through violence on their classmates, teachers, and bystanders. Just a few days ago Santa Barbara became the latest crime scene, this time the result of a demented mind feeling rejected by the women he believed were owed to him.
It would be nice to say that SMC and Santa Barbara were isolated cases, but we now live in a time where one really has to walk through campus with eyes wide open. It is an age of fear at our schools, and not just colleges.
On April 25, an angry student stabbed 21 classmates in a Pittsburgh high school and in September 2013, another student went on a stabbing spree at a Houston high school. And of course there was the horrific massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newton, Connecticut in 2012 where 20 children and six adults were shot and killed by 20-year-old gunman, Adam Lanza.
While the SMC shooter was a former and not a current student of the college, his rampage climaxed at our campus, and we may never know why. Answers have not been revealed, but the truth is there are no easy answers to any of these outbursts of murderous terror.
What has become certain is that despite the excellent security and police forces that work at SMC, the idea of mass violence at institutes of higher learning are now a common part of the American educational landscape. It is as if colleges are now valleys where among the normal crowds of students, there are walking time bombs who are casting predatory gazes at their classmates instead of looking ahead to a career or general learning experience.
If the violence of militant groups in the Middle East and Asia are driven by political, social, and economic situations, the violence that has turned campuses into virtual urban war zones for a few, terrible hours is driven by something deeper and very ugly. It is a clash of various forces within our culture and national psyche.
It is as if society is now structured in a way where terrible alignments form between the mentally and emotionally disturbed and our obsession with violence and weapons. This landscape was perfectly captured by Oliver Stone in his vicious 1994 satire "Natural Born Killers," and Anthony Burgess in his novel "A Clockwork Orange."
In his excellent book "Columbine," journalist and author Dave Cullen chronicles the 1999 high school massacre in Colorado that was one of the first of the wave we're still living through. In it he describes the world of the killers, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, as a clash between a culture obsessed with "being cool" that collided with two disturbed, selfish teens who had a cold mindset where killing those you don't like is part of an almost twisted Darwinian sense of the world.
In a society where violence is seen as "cool," or even praised in our militarized culture, it is not surprising that the mentally warped will gravitate towards guns to solve their problems. We're raised in an almost goose stepping environment where the imperial violence of the state is glorified. Consider that when antiwar movies like "In The Valley Of Elah" or "Green Zone" premiered in theaters they tanked, yet macho war flicks like "Lone Survivor" and "Act Of Valor" attracted huge audiences.
We like to entertain ourselves with "us vs. the evil them" storylines, and this is the mindset of these deranged killers; "me vs. THEM." Our liberal president didn't even bother to bring Osama Bin Laden to trial, pumping him full of lead was enough. Zawahri even entered campus looking like a Blackwater mercenary, dressed commando-style, AK-47 in hand.
Of course culture is not the only thing we can blame. These shooters also have deeply-rooted emotional turmoils. They felt alone in a world where everything moves at 100 miles per hour, and nobody probably stopped to listen when they had something to say to someone, to anybody. Paying attention to someone, or just being a friend, can very seriously save lives. And even if a listening ear does not stop an urge to murder, it can catch warning signs of dangers to come. We must cherish our friends, in doing so we cherish ourselves.
We cannot hide from the fact that our campuses are now potential war zones on any given day, but what we can do is start looking at the roots of the situation, and only in this way can we begin to light some kind of candle in the darkness.