Sunday, January 26, 2014

No! Not Columbia, Maryland With a Mass Shooting! (Updated)

"We have spent billions of dollars in the fight against terrorism — the National Security Agency is maybe 10 miles from the Columbia Mall — when the real terror is right here in our midst, accounting for thousands upon thousands of premature deaths by homicide and suicide, most often impulsive acts made possible by access to guns......We are an exceptional country for too many wrong reasons."      - Dan Rodricks, 'Expecting the Horrible is the American Way', The Baltimore Sun - today.

Columbia, Maryland is an upscale 'bedroom community' and suburb of Washington D.C. (30 mins. from the capital) but most noted for being one of the very first fully planned towns (along with Reston, VA) in the 20th century. Visionary Jim Rouse (also grandfather of actor Edward Norton) planned Columbia "to be a better city, not just a suburb" according to a 25th anniversary issue of COLUMBIA magazine.

More specifically, Columbia was developed (starting in 1967)  as an "environmentally sound solution" to Howard County's sprawl but with a social experiment thrown in: a town planned deliberately to be "economically diverse, polycultural, multi-faith and interracial" as Rouse was fond of saying. It is also the place to which we moved after leaving Barbados in 1992. (Janice had just landed a new job in Columbia, working for Nucletron -  a radiotherapy software corporation-  and I followed with a college physics teaching job within months.)

We settled in an apartment complex ('The Greens') on Little Patuxent Parkway,  near the Harper's Choice Village Center . Columbia at the time was comprised of 7 'villages' each with its own village center, and amenities, including schools.  All the villages, as I recall, were ultimately connected by footpaths through woods, so theoretically you could walk on a footpath - say from Wilde Lake Village to Oakland Mills. (Not that we ever tried it).

Summers were spent enjoying the ambiance of band music or piped in rock on Lake Kittamaqundi, with the highlight  the Fourth of July celebrations and spectacular fireworks.   One could also go from the Lake area across an overpass walkway to the Columbia Mall - on the other side of Little Patuxent Pkwy. The Mall, needless to say, was the place for most Columbia kids to hang out, in a town they otherwise considered "boring" for lack of things teens could do.

Allison Klein, a former Washington Post reporter who also grew up in Columbia (in the 80s, before we arrived), described her life thusly:

"All ‘tweener children in Columbia, including me, spent as much time as possible roaming the mall as packs of bored, lip-glossed kids who could not go to the bathroom without the company of another bored, lip-glossed kid. What we wanted most was to be part of the pack, although I’m not sure exactly what we did other than shove our winter coats under the display beds in department stores so they wouldn’t burden us as we shopped. We hung out at the mall’s now-defunct video arcade and ate trays of french fries at McDonald’s, which once occupied prime mall real estate where the Gap is now located."

Needless to say, the news of the mass shooting in the Columbia Mall yesterday has those of us who used to live there puzzled, shocked and speechless, as much as the current residents. How could such an eruption of violence occur in a town whose only previous notoriety had been its Tolkien-ish street names and up to 100 lost motorists a day - thanks to its curved streets and concealed buildings (owing to eco-conscious planning that deliberately hid them behind trees and low hills.)

Both the victims, Brianna Benlolo and Tyler Johnson were in their 20s, shot at a snowboarding and skating store,  Zumiez  where they worked.   See also:,0,7268587.story

According to the piece, Benlolo was described as 'a pleasant, outgoing young woman who worked hard to provide for her 2-year-old son. She grew up in a military family and had lived in Florida and Colorado before coming to Maryland in 2010."

Johnson, meanwhile, on his Facebook page, had "listed himself as a sports fan who rooted for the Orioles, Ravens, Blackhawks and Capitals."

Why did this happen and why in Columbia?  In my original blog post I had invoked a domestic altercation, and noted Benlolo was a mom, and probably divorced .  However, further news since has quashed  this conjecture and the Baltimore Sun has  quoted police who said they had identified the shooter as Darion Marcus Aguilar, 19, of College Park. He had arrived at the mall with a Mossberg 12-gauge shotgun, a large amount of ammunition and a bag in which they found two crude devices made of "flash powder and household items."

Jealousy may still have been involved, but more likely, the shooter was a former employee fired by Benlolo (who recently rose to assistant manager) or perhaps a customer with a grudge.  The rational mind always searches for some sort of reason that makes sense. In the end, we will have to await further investigation to ascertain a motive - assuming (and hoping) there is one we can understand!

As for why in Columbia, well, why anywhere? Because guns are widely available everywhere and also easily accessible - thanks to there being no one in congress who will stand up to the insane gun lobby.  I guess, given Columbia is situated between Baltimore and Washington, one might say it was fortunate to have avoided mass violence this long.

Sadly, this is no consolation to the victims or their loved ones.

See also:,0,1853518.column

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