Terror arrived at my college a year ago. On June 7, 2013, a man, wielding a .223 caliber assault rifle and a handgun and strapped with 1,300 rounds of ammunition, killed his brother and father in Santa Monica and set their house ablaze. Then he commandeered a passing car, shot up a bus, and sprayed bullets across an intersection, before ordering the driver to take him to Santa Monica College.
His stroll westward across the campus took about 10 minutes—10 minutes in the history of a college in existence since 1929. The shooter walked from the eastern part of the campus—where the science and counseling buildings are—down the liberal arts building corridor and finally to the library—maybe 300 yards total. He walked through the old doorway to the campus and fired dozens of rounds. In that time, and in that space, he murdered three people.
I have taught at Santa Monica College for 30 years, which is not unusual. The average tenure of full-time faculty here is nearly 16 years—more than double the national average for education staff, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those of us who work here have watched hundreds of thousands of young souls walk the campus. Over many years, our schedules repeat, and we tend to stay in the same offices and classrooms; we relive the same sorts of encounters semester after semester—drinking coffee, jangling keys in an impromptu conversation in the parking lot, watching robed students march across a stage. Faced with terror, do these years of shared rituals mean anything? How does a college, a place filled with curiosity and hope, recover from an attack by its opposite, by a shooter who lashes out in white-hot rage?
That day, I dropped by my office and left an hour before the shooting. Like many of us at the college, I found myself asking: “What if?”—playing a troubling narrative in my head over and over.
My old office used to be in the liberal arts building, near where the shooter began his rampage. Put up in a hurry shortly after World War II and updated with mixed results, the liberal arts building has been scheduled to be torn down in the near future—for over a decade. If you worked or studied at the college—as so many now-prominent Angelenos did when they were first finding their way—you had a memory centered on this building. It contained the English department offices and the charismatic (and Dickensian-named) Dick Dodge, who taught Dustin Hoffman and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Some 20 years ago, I taught Monica Lewinsky in Liberal Arts 136 (but that’s another story).
The building houses the mailroom, which still draws faculty, staff, and campus gossip. When I was lucky enough to get a full-time job at the college in 1988, my windowless office was just off the hallway in room liberal arts 110—the information booth, I called it with some frustration, since I kept my door open and students would holler in, asking for directions to admissions or the bathroom. The shooter walked down that hallway, past that door, clad in black, his semi-automatic spraying bullets, ripping up the walls and ceiling.
Farther down the hallway was the desk once occupied by Jim Prickett, who was the English department secretary and taught three classes each term. He regularly carried forth about American history and sports, a crowd hovering around his desk. He had an insightful mind, a quick laugh, and a sweet, self-effacing nature. We elected him president of the faculty union, unprecedented for a part-time professor. Too soon, sadly, cancer took his life. The college re-dedicated a beautiful garden in his honor on May 16, 2013. From the garden you could see up to where Prickett would lean against the doorjamb—where, 21 days after the garden was dedicated in his honor, he could easily have been shot.
One of the men who created the garden—who planted the Chinese maples, plotted the sprinkler lines, and anchored the teak benches to ring the jacaranda tree—was Carlos Franco, a gardener at the college for 22 years. He was driving his daughter, Marcela, out of the parking lot when the two were shot. He died at the scene. The life of his daughter ebbed away hours later. On his day off, he had taken his daughter to the campus to buy books. She was going to take a summer course at the college.
In moments of crisis, the brain—sifting through trillions of routes beyond understanding—settles on one spot. For me, the gut-punch of my campus’ terror routed my consciousness back to a night that occurred more than 25 years ago, thousands of miles away. My wife, Hanne, and I were on a ferry on the North Sea sailing from England to Holland. To save money we had skipped a cabin berth, and now we were settling in on benches to catch a few hours’ sleep, head-to-head, taking up 12 feet. Before us a riot suddenly broke out—windows shattering, bottles smashing, jagged glass cutting into flesh. “Football hooligans,” as they were called, seems a quaint term for men willing to end their lives for the sake of a bloody brawl. Hanne and I, and 20 other people, were flattened against the wall in a space the size of a basketball court with 150 enraged, bloodied, drunken men.
The ship’s crew in dress whites appeared briefly in the doorway, and padlocked us in. The 2,000 on board were safe; we were trapped. My wife and I watched the mob feed on itself for 45 minutes, until the crew returned to disperse the men with a high-powered hose. And the large ship, impervious to the churning, rolling Atlantic, made a slow arc to return to Harwich, its route altered by raw terror.
An ocean-going ship is a behemoth, but a college is even more massive. Commentators call on colleges to be “nimble,” but year after year, the same courses are offered and the same committees meet in proud, stolid continuity. Psychically, colleges are like massive ships, too. Four or five years of college shape our lives, rig our prospects, tug on our memories.
People in any place—Santa Monica College or a doughnut shop—don’t expect a shooting. Yet according to Mother Jones, there have been over 60 mass shootings since 1982, and schools rank second (after workplaces) as sites of this kind of violence. So despite the permanence, nobility of purpose, and regularity of colleges, their absolute security is illusory. Still it is no surprise that students, huddled over books and laptops in the college library that day, felt as secure as innocent passengers on a ship.
The library is a place where “we inventory human capacity, we arrange, we remember, we heal through knowledge,” historian Kevin Starr told a gathering of people at Santa Monica College just after 9/11. Two years after Starr spoke, the new college library was completed and dedicated. Gone were polished card catalogues. Expanses of concrete and glass and rows of monitors proclaimed an era of digital exploration.
The shooter was headed toward the elegant sleek lines of the library when he took aim at Margarita Gomez, a 67-year-old churchgoer and bingo player, and killed her. She was known around campus because she frequently stopped by to collect cans and bottles for recycling. The shooter considered other targets and made his way up the shallow steps toward the library’s automated glass doors.
Some students fled from the library; others shouted “shooter” and ran into the depths of the library, setting off a stampede toward the rear emergency exits. The shooter walked calmly toward the front desk. “I am a police officer,” he said. An alarm from the emergency exit began to sound. Library staff and students working behind the desk rushed into a small room—nine people crammed into that closet-sized space—and shoved a safe in front of the door. They hit the floor before the firing started. Bullets ripped through the door and past their faces. They were trapped, powerless. The shooter fired his handgun into the room. The chamber empty and cartridges spent, he wheeled around and began firing his automatic weapon into the library. He blasted the counter, a metal chair, a row of lights, the cement walls—billows of gun smoke setting off the smoke alarm, which began its persistent, pulsing dog-whistle sound and flashing light.
Librarian Brenda Antrim was in her office upstairs. She heard a hail of bullets and then silence. After a time, she emerged. Seeing two terrified students, she pulled them close and rushed out the front door, where they were secured by dozens of police officers. Antrim served in the U.S. Air Force. She talked herself through a tense checkpoint by the Panamanian military police days after an American soldier had been shot there. Later, while working as a bank teller, she was held at gunpoint. In those moments, the threat of violence was disturbing—but not completely unexpected. But when a shooter enters a library, everything is out of context.
“The library is the heart of the college,” Antrim said.
The path of terror for the shooter ended in the library, where he was, according to police, “neutralized”—shot dead by campus police. The terror, however, was not neutralized. Campus leaders improvised a crisis center, providing round-the-clock counseling. Over the following week 221 people received individual crisis counseling, and another 200 received group counseling, from therapists who came to campus from the Red Cross, UCLA Counseling and Psychological Services, and the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health. In those therapy sessions, in conversations, we began to heal. Healing happened slowly and quickly, with anguish and with deliberate thought. With distance, minute piled on minute, and the shooter’s haunting image receded.
For librarian Antrim, the terror of that day recalled the words of the commanding officer of the U.S. Air Force who led her into Panama. He warned her company that they would see combat and death, and that they needed to be mentally tough. “You need to get through this to get past it—or you’ll be stuck living it,” he told them.
One way to get past what happened on our campus has been to honor the memory of those who perished. Memorials sprang up instantly—burning candles, flowers, notes—for Carlos and Marcela, and another near the library for Margarita. Another memorial appeared near the book drop of the library. People were mourning for the library itself.
Constructing narratives can provide a way out of the terror—reshaping memories into narratives that allow for recovery. Soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder can progress if they can make stories that make sense of their experiences. It’s not a neat or easy process. During crisis counseling, a therapist suggested to the library staff that they reframe what happened—and tell a story than isn’t dominated by terror. Out of hundreds in the library, only one person died: the shooter. The staff protected people, kept them safe. The therapist told them, “You provided a safe haven.”
Logic tells us the terror is gone, yet of course logic doesn’t cut it in a shooting. Even on a college campus, where we teach logic, terror holds sway, more than it deserves, long after the incident has passed. Nearly a year later, I have heard dozens of intense stories, from students and from colleagues, about those 10 minutes last June at Santa Monica College.
As a professor of English, I spend a lot of time talking about stories. Colleges exist in part as places to hear and tell stories. When it comes to this event, stories transform the raw experiences—seeing a library peopled only with soldiers, backpacks and laptops abandoned at table after table; seeing blank dead eyes single you out for a target, aim and miss; knowing that leaving a few minutes earlier kept you heartbeats ahead of carnage while your friends were in the shooter’s grasp; and watching a harmless woman gunned down, knowing that you held the door open for her moments before.
I could not stop the terror of a shooter on a college campus. But I was a passenger on a ravaged ship and urge others to listen to the stories. As soul-wrenching as some are, they come from a safe haven—a college, where our minds can be unsafe, take risks, and discover. In the face of terror, go, be brave. That is all we can do—and that is enough.