Reflections on last weekend’s tragedy in Isla Vista

As I reflect on the actions of one young man to intentionally end the lives of six others, I have no frame of reference. There is literally nothing that I can call on in my own experience or the experiences of others I have known to “understand” what happened. And what needs to be understood? What refuses understanding? As far as I can tell, it is how one human could overcome seemingly insurmountable psychological and emotional prohibitions and end the lives of other human beings. But is that really so surprising? This happens on a regular basis. It’s not as if we don’t know the ways that this can be accomplished, even orchestrated on a large scale.

There is something more that catches my interest. My family and I lived at the edge of Isla Vista for six years. I spent time near all the locations where Rodger killed. I have many fond memories of the beautiful environment in which I grew and changed as a scholar and an individual. I also know that these details are meaningless in relation to the weekend’s tragic events. That these render the event more significant to me points at a certain egotism. Yes, things happen elsewhere, but not here. Not close to me or to a place that I love. The unfathomable is based in part on my arbitrary location in the world.

Yet surely even those not personally connected with the events struggle with their seeming absurdity. It is not just a geographic location that we are invested in, but a socio-economic or cultural location, as others have pointed out. When life is lost on the battlefield, in the Third World or in the ghettos, there is an element of anticipation that softens the blow. This anticipation itself is often revealing of our prejudices. Yet we are surprised, or more so, when tragedy strikes in a movie theater, at an elementary school, or in a beautiful community by the ocean. Why? Because we believe that the socio-economic backdrops against which the latter events and activities take place provide protection against murder. Comparatively, that is true, but when that pretense of protection is violated, we feel vulnerable and exposed.

This is not at all to trivialize the pain and loss that comes from death, although to a certain extent any socio-cultural analysis cannot fail to trivialize the individual death. Rather, the access points of my reflection tell me that their function must be considered. They say as much about me and my interests as they do about the invaluable lives involved.

There is no tidy equation that will return us to stasis. We cannot add up the contributing factors and predict this terrible outcome. As others have noted, while we can and should explore all the elements of this event, from masculine culture to mental illness to population density, we should resist the reductionism that usually accompanies these conclusions. In the aftermath of tragedy, the public conversation is usually reduced to a squabble over the one response we should have. Shouldn’t it be possible to maintain multiple conversations, multiple avenues of improvement? It is clear there is no quick fix. It is also clear that whatever approaches we take should not be about reestablishing our illusions, but working toward substantive change. Demonizing Rodger provides the quickest end to the pain felt by many, and the quickest societal end to the uncertainty of disruptive events. But it does nothing aside from quickly patch the hole left by the tragedy so we can bide our time until the next.

On the other side of the coin, we should not confuse our frustration at the slowness of change with the ability to change. I have seen this already in many fatalistic responses that bear the influence of Western Christian epistemologies. As this story goes, gun control or mental health work or fighting a misogynistic cuture won’t ultimately make a difference. These things will happen again despite our best efforts. Of course these assertions are correct. I have seen a version of this response often in the classroom when dealing with huge issues deeply embedded in our culture. Nothing I do will make a difference…so I can do nothing. I argue that this reasoning is implied by our reading of the supernatural.

I grew up understanding that the biggest issues in life were resolved by a simple conversation with God. Even in the thoughtful philosophy of Kierkegaard, God inhabits the place of the absurd, the limit of my understanding. Rather than continually struggle, I simply submit and the uncontrollable is controlled. With that divine standard, the mundane inch-by-inch progress that is the hallmark of change in our world seems fruitless. Just as with the individual contexts that mark the importance of these events in our minds, the issue is not really about others, but ourselves. If I am convinced that true change only happens by supernatural intervention, lesser slogs through the social and political mud of the American landscape is too much work. But this is also how, viewed in the lens of history, any earthly change is made.

Thus, a couple things I can take from the events. First, our meaning-making has more to do with ourselves, though we engage in it against the foil of victims and perpetrators. Second, it is counterproductive to tout these events, whose meaning refuses to be contained, as reducible to trite slogans or policy changes. Yet we must engage in our communities. We must take action without providing solutions.

What can we as a society begin to control? We cannot force folks into mental health services before they have committed crimes. We cannot force (though we continue to try) a traditional version of the ideal nuclear family. We cannot systematically shut down all sources of misogynistic culture, nor those of fetishization or commodification. We cannot limit or control access to firear…wait a second. That might be a good start.

Access to firearms would not have prevented at least three of the deaths in last weekend’s tragedy as they occurred. Or perhaps they would have. In his written manifesto (that I confess I skimmed but did not read) Rodger reflects on the feeling of power, a feeling he had been longing for, that came from the acquisition of firearms. If he had been unable to obtain these weapons, would he have carried out his plan? Guns are guns and people are people, but the combination certainly seems to enhance the power of both, and it undoubtedly enhanced the confidence of Rodger to go forward with his plan.

Yet whether access to firearms would or would not have made the difference is not the really the point. The question is whether limiting access would be a step in the right direction. Quite possibly. Would it infringe on the rights of upstanding individuals to purchase, own, and discharge certain weapons? It certainly would, if such rights existed. Even if that were the case, though, we would want to ask how many victim’s lives would outweigh the pleasure of these upstanding individuals and the relative ease with which they can procure their weapons. Some would say that the loss of even one life outweighs the ability of many to own and use firearms. I don’t think that is the case. There is no easy answer. But I think we can have a smarter conversation about it than the one that currently dominates the political landscape.

I struggle to say something meaningful in the face of meaninglessness without resorting to trivial or banal statements. I have no prayers to give. My heart has hurt as I thought of the tragic events, but that means little. We balance what we can do, and what we should do. For my part, I will continue to seek authentic conversations about the factors that contributed to Rodger’s tragic actions, both to process and to help make changes for the better.

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