Understanding Why

Last weekend began with a devastating tragedy in Isla Vista, the small college community right adjacent to UCSB. A disturbed killer tore through the streets and murdered 6 undeserving young students: Christopher Michaels-Martinez, 20; Weihan “David” Wang, 20; C.H., 20; Veronika Weiss, 19; Katie Cooper, 22; and George Chen, 19. Living in downtown Santa Barbara as a graduate student, which is about 20 minutes away from the tragic crime scenes, I did not feel immediately threatened by the attack and do not know any victims. Still, students that I taught, or any one of my friends, could have been one of these 6 or one of the 13 others that were injured during the rampage. I am deeply saddened by this event.

The UCSB community has responded well, highlighting the victims’ lives and rallying around them rather than attempting to parse the killer’s motivations.  I don’t watch much news, and my reading of the news is typically limited to science, sports, and mainstream happenings. When I was at the gym on Tuesday, four days after the tragedy, CNN was on and a host and panel of five were talking. There’s no sound at the gym, but the headline across the screen was asking, “Why?” Each of those six were offering their opinion; the popular ones everyone knows like mental health, video games, guns, movies, upbringing, or whatever, on what had happened in Isla Vista.

This was four days after the event. There was no breaking news to be reported, but 24-hour news networks apparently need to package opinions and personal analyses as news to increase viewership. Meanwhile, in Isla Vista, individual protestors were attempting to demonstrate why this should be frowned upon. Someone camped outside the deli, where Christopher Michaels-Martinez was murdered and others were shot, holding two signs that read, “Our tragedy is not your commodity. News crews go home.”

Others joined him as media outlets lined their vans up around the community, hoping to cash in on the event while even acknowledging their intrusion. I heard of one station that proudly mentioned that they were reporting well away from mourners, and then instantly cut to footage of people grieving around the community. The protestors did their best to allow individuals to grieve without interference of the media. This wasn’t an issue of censorship; it was an attempt to blockade media sensationalism and allow friends and families to mourn without being pestered.

UCSB protests the media. From http://imgur.com/KgratHV

UCSB protests the media. From http://imgur.com/KgratHV

The late film critic Roger Ebert was interviewed for a news program after the Columbine shooting. The interviewer asked Ebert if a scene in Basketball Diaries, where a character fantasizes about walking into his school with a machine gun, may have inspired the killers. Ebert responded simply by saying the movie failed at the box office and the killers likely never saw it. Ebert noticed that the reporter was visibly disappointed by this, and so he gave his opinion.

“‘Events like this,'” I said, “‘if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn’t have messed with me. I’ll go out in a blaze of glory.'”

The pictures engrained in my mind from recent tragedies like this one are those of the murderers. It’s easy to recall the Virginia Tech shooter’s vanity poses with his weapons even seven years later, but I can’t even remember any of the victims. Even when I search for stories covering the lives of the victims, I see images of the murderer in the relevant news stories. Summarizing what Ebert said, news outlets want to know why these killers commit such terrible acts. They show 24-hours of footage while speculating motivations, coming up with nicknames and headline, and embedding images of murderers into the public’s consciousness. As soon as they wonder why for days on end, they have their answer to their own question: they thrust no-name individuals into infamy by elevating the killers with the pretext of explaining them.

Of course, the viewers have to own up to their part, too. Viewership does increase with these stories, and so viewers should reconsider what they find appealing. Fred Rogers, better known as the soft-talking, sweater-donning Mr. Rogers from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, is attributed with saying the follow: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” This is what should be focused on. A candlelight vigil was held on Saturday night for the victims. About 20,000 people attended a memorial service held at UCSB earlier this week. Hundreds more paddled surfboards out to the ocean in an act of solidarity and remembrance for the victims.

20,000 gather at UCSB in memory of the victims

20,000 gather at UCSB in memory of the victims

UCSB Paddle Out (Peter Vandenbelt / VBDphotos.com / Associated Press)

UCSB Paddle Out (Peter Vandenbelt / VBDphotos.com / Associated Press)

These acts are what are truly important. There is an unattributed quote that I’ve read a few times. It says that when you die, you die three times. The first time is when your heart stops beating, and you are no longer breathing. The second time is the last time anyone says anything about you. The last time you die is when the last person thinks about you. This last time is when you are truly dead. This might be sobering, but it highlights the best way to honor those who have passed. I’m writing this to remember the victims; to not let the victims die. As I said, I did not know any of the victims, but that doesn’t change who they were or why they should be remembered.

Through a few news articles, which did in fact respectfully and admirably highlight the victims’ lives rather than glorify the murderer, and through personal accounts I have come across, I have compiled brief stories for each of the victims. If anyone has anything to offer about these individuals, feel free to comment. If any of these excerpts feel insensitive or are undesired, please contact me personally.

Christopher Michaels-Martinez

Chris’ freshman year roommate, Jeff Dolphin, gave a short speech in honor of him during Saturday’s candlelight vigil. He described Chris as a great, loving guy who was willing to do anything if asked and was always thinking of others. After studying hard and stressing out over a midterm once, Chris walked into Dolphin’s room with a 6-lb bag of chips and hummus and insisted that they just sit around and binge watch television to unwind.

Chris was an English major at UCSB, excited to go to London next year to study abroad. He wanted to be a lawyer like his parents and liked playing basketball. His father said he worked hard in school and loved sports. As Jeff Dolphin said in his speech, it’s important to remember that he was here.

David Wang

David grew up in Fremont, CA and was good friends with James Hong and George Chen. He loved to play basketball with his friends and was a computer engineering major at UCSB.  He had plans to finish this school year and head to Yellowstone with his family. He was going to turn 21 in July.

His family moved to the Bay Area from China ten years ago. His mother said he was a very, very nice boy and modest; he aced his SATs but never bragged about it. His high school will honor him with a plaque and memorial garden on campus.


At the request of his parents, the initials C.H. are being used to identify the victim. While the point is to remember these individuals, it is also important to respect the wishes of those grieving.

Those who knew C.H. said that his “goofy, toothy smile could light up a black hole”. He was friendly and dedicated to his school work. He was also a computer engineering major at UCSB. C.H. grew up in Taipei but moved to San Jose where he attended high school. His drama teacher remembered him fondly, saying that you could tell he really enjoyed drama and was hard-working.

Veronika Weiss

Veronika went to Westlake High School, not too far from UCSB. She was a four-sport athlete who excelled at water polo player and was described as mentally and physically strong. Friends also said she was “silly and fun”. A friend commented on the social media site Reddit that she once dressed up as a cow and drove for 45 minutes just to get free Chick-Fil-A.

Veronika, or Vern to her friends, attended UCSB hoping to pursue a career in finance. She and Katie Cooper were sorority sisters. Her father described her as strong and smart, saying that she was working hard to earn straight As during her first year at UCSB.

Katherine Cooper

Katie was described as an outgoing artist who could light up any room. Her neighbor across the street, who was good friends with Katie, recalled texting conversations while watching each other through their windows. They would be jokingly “creepy” to each other, one randomly texting the other to say that she liked her music that was playing. She also said that Katie was fun and spontaneous; she once walked around Isla Vista in a Mike Wazowski costume for no reason.

Katie was an art history major at UCSB and Veronika’s sorority sister.  She was about to graduate from UCSB. Katie was from Chino Hills, CA where she competed in track in high school.

George Chen

One of George’s friends from elementary school described him as “really, really sweet”. They knew each other since they were seven, and the friend said he remembered the huge smile he always had on his face. George was originally from Ottawa, Canada but moved to San Jose, CA. He had been a camp counselor for the YMCA.

George was the oldest child and loved video games, parkour, swimming, and hiking. He and his younger brother would play video games together and laugh, despite a nearly decade in age between the two. He was a considered very bright and active in the community. He was a computer engineering student at UCSB and was friends with C.H and David.


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