The recent killings at UCSB indicate that even the most bucolic campuses are not immune from irrational violence. In a country where guns are as important as mom and apple pie, Isla Vista is now known for its link to tragedy. The deaths of seven young people outside Santa Barbara mark yet another chapter in a long series of education-related heartbreak, a modern recounting of violent death that commenced in 1966 with engineering student and former marine Charles Whitman climbing a tower at the University of Texas and killing sixteen and wounding thirty-two.
Since then the litany of death has known no geographical or chronological boundaries, involving elementary, secondary and college sites. Each decade has its list of atrocities. We recall too well gory bloodbaths at, among other venues, Columbine High School in Colorado, Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, Virginia Tech, Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal, and Oikos College in Oakland. This, unfortunately, is a short list.
Making sense of this latest horror brings the writer to a mirror of his own history. UC Santa Barbara saved my academic life, as I transferred there from Berkeley in 1961, after two semesters of academic probation. I graduated two years later and returned in 1965, finishing a PhD in history in 1969. The same year I began my career at Queen's.
Arguably the prettiest campus most mortals could ever see, perched literally on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, UCSB proved a wise choice. "How do people study there?" my wife asked a few years ago, and the question was real. But in the early 1960s, the university had a mere 3200 students -- not only a manageable number, but also a healthy environment where students actually knew professors, and, more important, professors knew and took an interest in students. There was little, if any alienation of the sort that would burgeon into the Berkeley Free Speech Movement in 1964-5. Indeed, most of my peers looked forward to "fitting in" to whatever vocation and lifestyle that beckoned.Don't get me wrong: for the two years that I lived in Isla Vista, on a street named Sabado Tarde ("late Saturday"), we partied with the best of them. Isla Vista, with one-eighth of the 23,000 students that now roam the area of about five square kilometres, was an unincorporated area due north of campus, with Greeks, apartment dwellers, young families and faculty, and long-time denizens, mostly Hispanic (some with goats and chickens), sharing the territory. There was no police presence, and we knew we could party unimpeded, except when the California Highway Patrol came through at 1:44 and 4:44 a.m. Then we left the streets.
This positive image changed over the years. In 1970, antiwar protestors burned the Bank of America, incurring the wrath of conservatives. Equally important, the university also grew like Topsy. The year that I returned to commence my PhD, the history department to which I attached myself hired thirteen new assistant professors. That kind of growth, multiplied across campus, proved unsettling and made clear that research and graduate work would come to predominate the campus pecking order.
Flash forward fifty years. UCSB came second in the world a year ago in one important scientific ranking. It also came second (to the University of Iowa) as the top "party school" in the U.S. In recent years, campus street parties have turned into something worse, involving police visits and booking logs.
And now, a young man has transformed that campus into another horrendous crime scene.
What can be said of the alleged perpetrator and the mayhem he created? Certainly he was an unbalanced human being, not unlike the Unabomber in his articulate determination to explain himself in long, rambling video postings. But where Theodore Kaczynski excoriated American capitalism and politics, this man spoke again and again of groups that made his life miserable.
From these documents one speculates about the motives of a dispirited and angry young person who never found his place in the world. He was the son of a famous Hollywood director, yet he attended the less-valued Santa Barbara City College as he lived among UCSB students. The three roommates he killed with knives were all Asian Americans. His rantings about the women who would not date him -- apparently extended to all women -- and they amount to a textbook case of misogyny of the sort that too often leads to violence. Clearly he was tormented by class, race, and gender resentments.
The idiosyncratic reading of this sad text is important, but not the only story.
Indeed, there is no simple conclusion here. T.S. Eliot once argued that no matter how well someone knows another person, there is always something unknown, something possibly of the greatest importance. Rodger's parents knew about his unhappiness; the police had interviewed him three times and did not consider him a threat. And thus he floated, a bomb timed to go off, an explosion clear only in retrospect.
Given the current primacy of firearms (and the craven hands-off attitude of most politicians toward gun control), the long-standing decline in public help available to support mental health, and the voracious maw of media and social networks that requires periodic feeding with items like this one, we must anticipate more slaughter. Killings like these now occupy the category, "business as usual." When cartoonist Walt Kelley wrote that "we have met the enemy and it is us," he did not know how right he was. Yes, this will be even more painful unless we begin to do better than better addressing these questions.
This article appeared on the Globe and Mail online edition, May 27, 2014.