When 22-year-old Elliot Rodger went on a shooting spree in Isla Vista, near the University of California, Santa Barbara, killing six people before putting a gun to his own head, UCSB students were understandably in a state of shock. So was I, because I was a UCSB student nearly a decade ago — and I can’t believe this has happened again.
On Feb. 23, 2001, UCSB freshman David Attias plowed his turbo-charged black Saab into a crowded Isla Vista street at an estimated 60 miles per hour, striking five individuals, killing four and injuring several others. After the collision he got out of his car and proclaimed he was the “angel of death,” as he kicked and swung his arms at a growing crowd. The horrendous act was reportedly the result of frustration of a sexual nature — just like Rodger’s was. By now many people have seen the disturbing YouTube video in which Rodger declares he’s seeking revenge on all of humanity, claiming: “I’ve been forced to endure an existence of loneliness, rejection and unfilled desires—all because girls have never been attracted to me.”
The similarities don’t stop there. Both young men had histories of being in and out of therapy for serious mental conditions and both drove black luxury cars presumably purchased by their Hollywood director fathers. Rodger’s dad was a second director on "The Hunger Games"; Attias’ father an accomplished TV director, whose résumé includes "The Sopranos."
There were also similar events leading up to the two Isla Vista slayings. Attias had been in two other car accidents in the weeks before he took four lives, and he had stopped taking his medication. Rodger’s disturbing videos led his parents to alert the police about their concerns.
This is where the two young men’s stories diverge.
Attias lives. He was promptly arrested the night of the 2001 Isla Vista massacre and tried for murder. A 2002 jury found him not guilty by the markedly unusual reason of insanity. Two years ago, he was ruled sane by a judge and released from a state facility for the criminally insane. He’s since disappeared into relative obscurity, because unlike Rodger he doesn’t have a Facebook page to pillage and a trail of reality TV-like YouTube videos to dissect.
When I was a UCSB student in 2003 I was haunted by the Attias murders and spent a day walking up and down Sabado Tarde Road, the street where Attias sped 60 miles per hour in a crowd and Isla Vista was forever changed. I remember the sky was a chalkboard grey as chills went up my spine crossing the street. But Sabado Tarde was still just “Sabado” — the same street I had crossed thousands of times en route to a class or a party. Of course, trauma isn't recorded in a landscape; it's etched into our minds. Memories fade away, while the place lives on. Eventually, will Rodger’s acts be forgotten too? There’s no memorial for the mark Attias left on Isla Vista.
We forgot too soon. We stopped paying attention.
There’s only an outline of David Attias on a Google search; no Facebook groups or websites have been created to memorialize the 2001 tragedy as there are for the recent Isla Vista tragedy. Social media has brought Rodger into a kind of sharp focus that Attias never had. Rodger’s music taste can be analyzed by looking at his social media pages and the creepy cadence in his voice is recorded in more than a dozen YouTube videos. With the eternal life of today’s Internet, Rodger will always be in the spotlight in some way. But will that make certain that we don’t forget?
There were no sweet, California college-wide memorials for the 2001 Isla Vista massacre as there are today for last week’s tragedy — at least none that were recorded in up-to-the-minute photo diaries like Instagram. Our mourning is more public now than ever with Twitter and Facebook documenting every emotion. Yet I’ve been comforted by fellow alumni posting their allegiance with Isla Vista, and I’m proud of people uniting via Facebook to create vigils in my own city, Los Angeles.
It’s this kind of public sharing and widespread information that is shaping our collective memory. Presumably, in the next 13 years, just a few clicks will reveal our digital recordings of this past weekend’s events — will Rodger’s rampage then feel just as immediate?
Attias’ pre-Facebook slaying takes much more digging to remember. I’ve called college professors and fellow alumni to ask about Attias. They remember being pissed off and sad, but the details after that are foggy.
In our information age the Internet also leads to a sort of amnesia. Mass killings have become white noise. Sandy Hook, the Boston bombings, Columbine — there are so many that we have started to tune them out. It’s natural to try and forget; biologically our brains repress hurtful memories. But perhaps a tide has turned. Perhaps we will not forget this one. Maybe the page where we announce GauchoStrong (referring to UCSB's mascot) will live on forever.
Richard Martinez, whose son Christopher Michaels-Martinez was gunned down and killed in the Isla Vista shooting, has cried out to Congress to get to work on gun control legislation. He announced at a press conference, “They [politicians] have done nothing and that’s why Chris died ... It’s almost become a normal thing for us to accept this,” he said, of mass killings. “It’s not normal ... life doesn’t have to be like this.”
The Internet has responded with explosive support for Martinez, already more than 1.5 million have joined the movement to send a postcard to their congressman to end the wave of violence with the note, “not one more.”
What happened this past weekend was a tragic déjà vu: We can’t forget this time. Social media and the Internet’s permanent presence are leading the way for us to memorialize. It can be an uncomfortable platform for grief but it nudges us to remember. At a recent vigil, UCSB students said it best, as they united chanting: “Not one more, not one more!”
My Isla Vista brothers and sisters, we won’t forget you.