My Nephew was Killed in Isla Vista. Are You Going to Remember This Time?
I believe in the truth.
I believe that every good thought I have,
All men shall have. – Kenneth Patchen, 'What is the Beautiful?'
The night after my nephew, Chris, was murdered in Isla Vista, California, my family and I felt alone. Yes, we'd just crashed the sheriff's press conference and had the attention of plenty of reporters. But as I drove home with my brother, Richard, along with Chris's cousin and his girlfriend, I felt as if we'd poured our hearts into a black hole.
For all of Richard's public anger and adamancy, we felt like not much would come of this massacre. I found myself thinking: After all, only six people were murdered, and only 13 were wounded. What's that compared to the 26 murdered at Sandy Hook, the 32 at Virginia Tech or the 13 at Columbine?
How fucked-up is that? Only six? What has this country come to?
The next morning, the whole family, including Chris's mother this time, drove back down to Isla Vista, with all of the trophies and photos of him we could find stuffed into my backpack, for an interview with Good Morning America. Then we drove the hour and a quarter back north again, depleted and cynical.
Richard's concern was that no one would see the interview, that his grief and his heart would be reduced to a few sound bytes. Our indictments of the fanatic element of the gun lobby, of men's attitude towards women, of the media's super-naturalization of the killer, who, after all, held commonplace views only remarkable in that he carried them to an extreme – was anyone really listening to it all?
A week later, people still keep telling me how courageous my brother is. I'm not really sure what courage is anymore. My brother lost the most precious thing to him in the world: his only son. His words cannot help but spill into the public arena – what does Richard have to lose in raising his voice about how desensitized and hopeless we all feel about another needless gun massacre?
Can we all agree that this is crazy? Can we all agree that this is achingly, heartbreakingly sad? Can we not just settle, 10 days after I lost my nephew, back into "normal"? Can we instead allow this event, finally, to invoke some deep questioning? Here are the things we know, as a family, that we can't forget this time, as a nation.
Isla Vista happened because it’s easy for anyone to get powerful weapons.
My brother and I are not anti-gun. We recognize the rights of hunters who respect guns and their power, and who honor their kill. We recognize the integrity and care of gun owners who teach their kids that guns are not toys but dangerous weapons to be handled with the awareness that an accident could prove fatal for a family member or friend.
But Isla Vista happened in part because some people feel it is important to protect a hobby, a gun-collecting hobby focused on powerful automatic and semiautomatic weapons that are made for no other reason than to kill lots of people. Can we somehow work to maximize the rights of sane, responsible gun owners and minimize the access to powerful weaponry that emotionally unstable men, with rage in their hearts and an intent to kill, still have? I don't know how we do it, exactly, but it seems vital that we put our minds and hearts together and commit ourselves to figuring this out.
The exercise of our political freedoms, which I treasure, does not mean that we do not also have responsibilities to each other as fellow human beings.
Isla Vista happened because men are socialized to see women as things to be had.
Yes, we feed little boys toys and games and movies that glorify violence, as a method of expressing one's emotions. But we are not teaching boys to connect deeply, so they hold up sex with women as the solution to their loneliness – that love is something that can be strategized, targeted, taken.
Look at the booming business of so-called "pick-up artist" training, which teaches lonely, desperate or shy young men how to manipulate and control women's responses to them. Consider the idea that a woman and man can be good friends and love each other – and that such a relationship is referred to as "just" friends. We sell a "solution" to a life of isolation is "the one" – the perfect love story with the perfect romantic partner who will take all our pain away. Why do we have a culture that tells us life is not worth living without that?
Of course Isla Vista happened because we haven't found ways to take care of those who are mentally suffering. It happened, too, because our politicians are not responsibly, creatively creating partnerships and seeking gun solutions. But mental health professionals and politicians can't fix a life of lovelessness. We need parents, teachers and relatives talking to boys not just about sex, not just about love, but about friendship with girls. We need to be telling our sons and nephews that their emotions are their own responsibility, not a debt women are obliged to pay. Even if your kid is the friendliest boy in the world, talk to him about friendship - so that he has the means and awareness to talk to the boys who really need to hear it.
Isla Vista happened because the media gives a killer what he wants.
Every time there is a gun massacre in America, TV stations and websites endlessly broadcast the killer's name, image and message. When my family and I turned on Good Morning America a week ago to watch our interview, surrounded by pictures of Chris, we were treated to choice bits of the killer's video – and pundits painstakingly rummaging around in his psyche. The killer got what he wanted and is showing the next angry young man out there that he will also get the publicity and revenge he seeks because the media shows the spectacle in every detail.
A debate has finally started, but to my family, it looks like the media has no proper ethics around mass murder. Other than Anderson Cooper – and ABC, which I understand is now working to correct its emphasis on the story – anchors, reporters and news outlets are all too happy to create templates for killers to become heroes in their own minds, to give other lonely young men a roadmap for achieving recognition.
The media is culpable for gun violence every time it repeatedly gives a killer the fame he so desires. And solutions aren't impossible: the names of suicides are not published because the publicity of suicides increasesthe suicide rate. The names of sexual assault victims get withheld. Why haven't we found a way to talk about these massacres without becoming a partner to killing?
Isla Vista does not have to happen again.
My family is not out for revenge, not against the NRA leadership or the shooter's family, nor the media or the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department. We aren't against anyone. We want a nation to take stock to engage the issue of violence deeply, to move beyond black and white, us and them, right and wrong, to shift our culture of violence to a culture of caring and friendship, together.
Yes, we are furious in a way that you probably can't imagine, but revenge and arguments filled with slogans are beside the point. What earthly difference have any of those ever made? Where has temporary bickering and posturing gotten us in the 15 years since my five-year-old nephew woke up on the day of the Columbine massacre?
We are a nation of fundamentally good and decent people, including responsible gun owners, responsible journalists and responsible men who respect and value women. And yet we as a nation, as an American people, are not "winning".
We live in a country there where gun violence is commonplace and gets our attention for a few minutes – unless the victim is your nephew, daughter, brother, mother, beloved. But there are things we all must do.
We need to dial it down across the board – dial down the weaponry, the posturing, the use of a killer's name and image in the media. We need to talk to our boys about friendship, and we need to fix the connections between law enforcement and mental health professionals. But we desperately need to keep our eyes on the heart of the matter.
The heart of the matter is that we as a nation haven't slowed down to ask questions. We want drive-up window, candy machine answers, delivered quickly, so we can leave this painful subject behind. When we can't find instant answers, we settle for heated arguments that go nowhere and leave everyone angry. Let's come down from our position-taking towers to take hands in friendship, in the bond of basic human decency, in common grieving, to squarely face the heart-wrenching issue of gun violence.
Are we ready to start a dialogue – a partnership so that it is no longer easy for a young man to use murder and suicide to express his pain, so that no young man even wants to do this? As the poet Kenneth Patchen wrote, let us pause, and begin again.