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Opinion | Tom Mashberg

After the Thousand Oaks massacre, civic pain and civic pride

People gather during a vigil Thursday to pay tribute to the victims of a shooting in Thousand Oaks, Calif.
People gather during a vigil Thursday to pay tribute to the victims of a shooting in Thousand Oaks, Calif. (Apu Gomes/AFP/Getty Images)

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif.

On any given day the postings on the Nextdoor community website here might concern a wayward dog or a shredding event at the mall. The allure of Thousand Oaks is its ordinariness. A 55-square-mile way station between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara with a quietly expanding arts scene and a corny nickname: Toaks.

To read those postings on Thursday was foreseeably dismal, but by day’s end far from discouraging. There were broken-heart emojis and reports of slain relatives and appeals for blood, but also announcements of vigils and avowals of love and pride. Can a city ever recover from something as aberrant as a mass shooting that stole 12 lives? My wife and I are about to find out.

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We moved here from our beloved Newton, Mass., in March after more than 25 years. Our house had grown old and unheatable, and the winter climate generally unbearable. The weather here averages 70 degrees year-round, and rarely goes below 50 at night. There are 129,339 people, 75 miles of hiking trails, and (as it turns out) more than 50,000 oak trees. And it ranks among the top three “safest cities in America.”

Major life changes are tough enough in general without seeing kids from the nearby colleges weeping, dazed and bleeding on TV. We’d turned off all media at 11 p.m. Wednesday, shortly before the evil unfolded at the Borderline Bar & Grill, just 4.5 miles away. We awoke to the news at 6 a.m. Strange, to have slept through all that.

I wanted to head to the scene. I’m still a reporter (semi-retired). My wife, Barbara, the sage under our roof, counseled restraint. But it’s hard to sit still with so much grief in the air. Might there be a student from Newton among the victims? Could I offer someone a hug?

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I headed over to Cal Lutheran, the campus a quarter-mile up the street. About 50 of its undergrads had gone to “College Country Night!” at the Borderline. Had they all made it back?

At least one had. Her name was Shannon, a short, bookish 20-year-old from Orange County enveloped by a giant sweatshirt. She was sitting on the floor of the main chapel, red-eyed, texting everyone she knew.

“I was very lucky,” she said with amazing serenity. “We were on an outdoor patio and we all heard the gunfire. We jumped the fence to get away.”

Turns out that Cal Lutheran, where the Los Angeles Rams have a practice field, is not limited to Lutherans. There’s a Catholic priest and a rabbi and clubs for Mormons and Muslims.

Rabbi Belle Michael, who was helping ready the chapel for the long day of services ahead, offered a polite welcome. “I do not know if I have any great wisdom to impart yet,” she said. “But Thousand Oaks is a very strong community.”

You often hear the word community at times like this. It tends to sound a bit wistful, even pro-forma. But her eyes said she meant it, and it dawned on me that my wife and I were now Toaksters too.

Civic pain and civic pride can be oddly interwoven. It’s like “Boston Strong.” You grieve for young lives and bereft families, yet you exult in the instant courage of the cops and college kids who fought back.

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To deny that my first thought on Thursday morning was “why the hell did we move here” would be to lie about human nature. After all, our own college-age daughter is moving out here next month.

But by Thursday night, during the first of the many vigils to come, we realized that we are part of the recovery, however long that takes. I posted that we had a spare room available for anyone in crisis. There probably will be. By dawn Friday, our community was battling wildfires.

For us, it’s “Toaks Strong” now.


Tom Mashberg is a freelance journalist who reports on art and antiquities crimes.