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Shooting on campus: Recollection of the trauma

The scene of the Aurora, Colo. shooting in 2012, the day after the crime. Credit: Algr/Wikipedia

On April 17, 1984, as I stepped from the cafeteria in the College Activities Building at The Evergreen State College, Michael Pimental walked in, approached a table where several students sat, pulled out a .45 Colt automatic, and murdered Elisa Tissot.

Two years earlier, Elisa ended a relationship with Mike. He had been a mercenary in the Rhodesian army, and came away from that experience a mess. He found his way to Evergreen, and entered a romantic relationship with Elisa. After she ended it, he stalked her for two years, convinced they could get back together. His obsession and PTSD combined into a lethal psychosis. When I saw him on campus — I was a writing instructor — I could see he was outwardly disturbed.

Three months after the shooting, a court found him guilty of murder in the first degree and sentenced him to life imprisonment. He appealed his sentence successfully in 1994. It was changed to 30 years. He will be released in 2014.

Now, when shootings at schools happen like the one last Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn., I recall that day in Olympia. The campus community was shocked. While most staff and faculty dealt compassionately with the pall that descended on the school, there were those who didn't. The most callous was a stuffed shirt literature professor who described Pimental as, "A certain type who takes history classes."

Michael Pimental was not a certain type of student. He is a certain type of murderer.

Pimental's motive for murdering Elisa Tissot was revenge. He illustrates a pattern in such crimes, moving from personal attraction to anxiety, then to obsession, then to destruction. Sometimes obsession turns to suicide, sometimes to murder.

As we learn more about Adam Lanza — the gunman who killed his mother, six staff and faculty at Sandy Hook Elementary and 20 6- and 7-year-olds with a .223 caliber semi-automatic assault rifle ­— we'll find his reasons follow a specific profile.

No matter how horrible the crime, because it fits a pattern, we can understand the why and how of what happened. It is neither "unimaginable" nor "incomprehensible," as some officials and commentators hold. To understand can empower us, if not to stop all such killings, then to avoid others.

Despite the number of school shootings that have taken place in the United States over the last 10 years, the incident most similar to the Sandy Hook murders took place in Scotland.

On March 13, 1996, an anti-social loner named Thomas Hamilton forced his way into the Dunblane Primary School gymnasium with four handguns. He had been rejected as a volunteer at the school — he'd been involved in scouting, and the Boy Scouts removed him as a scout leader over concerns he might molest boys. Hamilton protested his treatment by the school and the Scouts, in letters to the press and Queen Elizabeth.

That Wednesday, he killed 16 children — 4, 5, and 6-year olds — and the teacher who protected them, Gwen Mayor. Twelve other children were injured, only one in the gym was not. Hamilton killed himself at the school, with a shot through the roof of his mouth.

The end game of mass murderers is their own death. Here, they differ from serial and spree killers, who are differently motivated.

Hamilton's goal was not only to revenge himself on kids and a school he treated as targets and symbols of his personal failure, his goal was to die, to end a conflict that ate him up. As we will come to know the 20-year-old Adam Lanza, perhaps better than he knew himself, we will know someone very much like the 45-year-old Thomas Hamilton, or 22-year-old Jacob Tyler Roberts who, on Dec. 11, killed two people at Clackamas Town Center in Happy Valley, Oregon. They all would be men with access to firearms. They all would be at wit's end, perceiving their only option of making something of their lives would be by taking others and then either their own or being killed by the police.

They differ from serial killers in that serial killers have a future. Arrogance can be their undoing, as in the case of Israel Keyes, who broke his method of killing people away from his place of residence when he murdered Samantha Koenig, an 18-year-old barista, in Anchorage, Alaska. Keyes confessed to other murders, including four in Washington state, but we may never know who those victims were. When Keyes hanged himself in his cell on December 2, it likely wasn't from remorse. As serial killers are about control ­ and the crimes Keyes executed and described confirm this – even in killing himself Keyes wanted control of what others would know about him.

To understand crime — any crime — you need to understand the relationship between perpetrator and victim. In the upcoming days, we will learn more about the relationship of Adam Lanza to his family and the school as investigators release information. Media coverage will subside, as it has already done in the Pacific Northwest about Israel Keyes and Jacob Roberts. We will return to the familiarity of the holiday season, taking comfort in its distraction as we look elsewhere.

For those of us who've known murderers or their victims, denial will not be so easy, as memory is only a moment away.

On Saturday, the day after the Sandy Hook massacre, the tabby at our house, Tiger, got under Ariel's foot on the stairs and she stepped on his paw. I took him down to our local veterinarian for a quick check, he was fine. Our doctor was not.

"How are you?" I asked.

She sighed and gave me a direct, powerful stare.

"After yesterday." She stopped the sentence, then explained, "Before I came to Seattle, I lived in Denver. I knew some of the kids and their families from Columbine, they were my patients."

"I understand," I said, and told her briefly about what had happened that April day in Olympia.

We took shared comfort in an understanding no one should have.

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