A PhD does not prepare you for a school shooting. My students are afraid. We are afraid. It’s been almost a week since the tragedy in Isla Vista. A student came into my office Tuesday saying, “Professor, you look hella sad.” I haven’t been sleeping well. Neither have the students. As a faculty member I’m still grappling with the aftereffects of such a horrendous event in our school’s history. Now that the press is gone, we have to figure out how to move on. We will forever be spoken about in that chain of school shootings: Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, UCSB.
I’ve been meeting with students in Isla Vista for walks in order to have them get used to their home again. A graduate student and I had lunch and walked to various sites. A student I am very close to lives only a few buildings from the sorority houses. Her father had called her to ask why her building was on the news. We met at the Starbucks on the corner, about half a block from IV Deli. She was too afraid to get any closer. When I broached the idea of going to IV Deli she looked at me with fear. She had told me that she finally went to the 7 Eleven the night before with friends, but it would be a while before she could do any more.
The students are living in a state of fear. Living in a state of uncertainty, knowing and not knowing your place in the world—that your life is precious and that you are not as safe as you thought. Fear is living on the brink, fear of being targeted for being a woman/blonde/young/person of color/etc. Your chest is throbbing with the rapid beat of your pounding heart, palms sweaty, breath shallow, body shaking. We had been living with the privilege of a sense of security. In an affluent, beautiful beachfront town. How can a place so beautiful also be the site of such violence and pain? We are now haunted by the threat of violence. We are now living in a space of radical uncertainty.
Here I am not writing about triumph in adversity, that’s not where UCSB is right now. That’s not where my students are and that’s not where I am. I am writing about living in the shit – about what it means to be held hostage by the threat of physical violence. I’m writing from a state of fear, about living in a state of fear. I don’t want to read stories about triumph in the face of adversity. We are in the shit and it would seem that for now we are here to stay.
Anthropologist Linda Green (1994) has written about the ways fear has penetrated social memory in Guatemala. She writes, “fear is a response to danger, but in Guatemala, rather than being solely a subjective personal experience, it has also penetrated the social memory” (227). Green describes, “rather than an acute reaction it is a chronic condition” (227). Most important however is the role of ambiguity. She writes, “fear thrives on ambiguities. Denunciations, gossip, innuendos, and rumors of death lists create a climate of suspicion. No one can be sure who is who” (227). While a social and political climate very different from Guatemala, in IV students for now are living in a state of constant fear, and even terror, never knowing when someone else might enter Isla Vista with a gun. But when the gunman is white/white-passing he is not considered a terrorist. Instead, he is a troubled youth, struck with mental illness. Like Green, fear is the “metanarrative” of my students because it is the “reality in which people live, the hidden state of (individual and social) emergency that is factored into the choices women and men make” (228). Choices that at the moment include avoiding certain areas and staying indoors. Another student recounted to me that she has a friend who had left her house for IV deli when the shootings happened. Hearing the gunfire, she ran home and locked the door, unable to open it again for days. Eventually friends came to help her, bringing her food and supplies.
Fear is political.
Just like the uneven distribution of resources, fear has also been distributed unevenly. Trauma can trigger memories of past events. Students who have suffered before are suffering again in ways and on terms that they themselves might not yet understand. This manifests in the arc of office hours where conversations have begun at the macro level, with discussions about increasing gun violence in the United States, but end with personal tragedies sometimes connected and sometimes unconnected to the shooting.
In this case, it’s fear not only of gun violence or patriarchy or racism or heteronormativity or misogyny. It’s fear of all those things and where they lead, all at the same time, which last Friday was death. The students were forced to face death. Culturally, we were forced to face the effects of all those things as disgustingly explained to us in the manifesto of Elliot Rodger. He was a man, rich, young, white-passing, and entitled. The object of his hate, but also his fear, was young women. Make no mistake, he was afraid of young women and he hated himself. We cannot understand this case outside of culture and cultural ideals of gender. Why did he feel like a loser for being a virgin, for not “getting a girl” by 22? Why did he hate himself? Why did he feel entitled to women’s bodies? Why did he desire blonde women? Patriarchy, racism, heteronormativity, misogyny. He could have responded in a number of ways, but in the American context, he resorted to gun violence.
I’m from Canada, and in the wake of the shooting I find myself thinking more about the differences between living in the United States and Canada through the lens of safety. While there are more gun owners in Canada, there is substantially less gun violence. This difference is linked to fear. Precarity produces fear. Why don’t people understand the connection between social care like having health insurance and gun violence? These things are inseparable. On Tuesday afternoon before the memorial services, a 21-year-old UCSB student who lives in IV was handling one of his 7 legally own guns, a Glock, and accidentally fired it, shooting through his wall and almost killing his neighbor. The student also owns 1,000 rounds of ammunition and high capacity assault rifle magazines. It is not a coincidence that he went to his guns days after the tragedy and hours before the memorial service. He did not feel safe.
Security used to be about food and shelter, and now it’s about Homeland Security and terrorism. Americans own guns because they don’t feel safe, but why don’t they feel safe? We need to return to ideologies of security that are about human needs and not about violence and the marginalization of the Other. Security should be about food and shelter, not imprisonment or annihilation.
The author thanks Paul Amar, Hannah Appel, Kum Kum Bhavnani, Eileen Boris, Jocelyn Chua, Abigail Heald, Katie Hasson, Tomas Matza, Ramah McKay, Rachael Joo, and Kevin O’Neill for their insights and feedback on this piece.