Thomas Wictor

What they’re feeling in Westgate Mall

What they’re feeling in Westgate Mall

On December 28, 1995, a gunman tried to murder Tim and me at our bookstore in Norwalk, California. He was dressed all in black—including a heavy flak vest and balaclava—and he carried a TEC-9 semiautomatic pistol with a barrel extension. I drew it as part of my banishment of the incident.


Tim and I were lucky that the gunman was an idiot who used the biggest, baddest-looking weapon he could find. The TEC-9 is notorious for jamming if you don’t scrupulously clean it. Gun owners call it the “Jam-o-matic.” If the gunman had been a pro instead of the ridiculous wannabe that I know he was, he would’ve used a .22-caliber revolver, and I’d be almost twenty years in my grave instead of writing this.

My boss—”Larry”—was an elderly con man who’d taken advantage of the kindhearted landlord, telling him over and over again that there was a treasure trove of rare books waiting at a storage facility for Larry to bring in and sell, and then the eight months of back rent would be paid. Larry had difficulty walking. That was his excuse for not retrieving his treasures. Tim and I offered multiple times, but Larry kept putting us off.

Finally, we forced Larry to take us to his storage facility, because we wanted no part of ripping off the landlord. Tim and I rented a U-Haul truck and followed Larry to his facility, where we discovered that his treasure trove was a pile of garbage. It was worth maybe five dollars. All the books had rotted, been attacked by termites and silverfish, and were covered in some weird cementlike substance and black schmutz. As Tim said, it was as if Satan had vomited on them and used them as toilet paper.

We loaded up the books and took them back to Larry’s store. It was dark by this time, and after an hour or so of unloading, the gunman popped out from behind the building, pointed his gun in my face, and shouted, “Yeah? Yeah? Don’t fuck with me, man!” He was bobbing and weaving like a boxer, and I could tell by the crinkles around his eyes that he was smiling.

I completely lost my mind. It’s not possible to describe the horror and sadness I felt, knowing that I was about to be murdered. Though I turned and ran, I had a bizarre precognitive hallucination in which I was shot in the back of the head. There was a massive blow, the bullet rammed like a steel rod through my brain, I saw my teeth and chunks of pink flesh fly out in front of me, and I felt the cold night air rush into the rawness of my empty skull.

None of it actually happened, of course. We flummoxed the gunman by instantly running in opposite directions. When we piled into the store and slammed the steel door, Larry wasn’t with us. We screamed to him as Tim dialed 911, but at first he refused to come inside.

Having a gun muzzle three inches from my right eye was the second-worst experience of my life. The worst was realizing that the loading-dock door was open, and I had to close it. The store was gigantic, more than 8000 square feet. It was pitch black and full of seven-foot-tall shelves. We had no idea if the gunman had already come in through the loading dock and was stalking us. While Tim let Larry in and tried to convince the 911 operator that we did indeed have an emergency, I ran to the loading dock.

The car from which the gunman had come had been parked beside the building, right next to the loading dock door. When I entered the dark loading dock, I braced myself for a burst of gunfire.


Lowering the roll-up door was like this. The door made an incredible amount of noise, and since it was just aluminum, it offered no protection. As I stood in the open doorway and reached up, I remembered reading a description that a British soldier wrote of “going over the top” in World War I, meaning coming out of the trench for an attack. He was numb and felt utterly exposed. Everything was dreamlike, surreal, and distorted. His senses were both dulled and hyperacute.

But he was armed, and he was a soldier fighting a war. I was a civilian trying to help an old man meet his obligations. The last thing I expected was a screaming gunman.

I’ve had a few major car accidents, serious illnesses, and a couple of near misses on airplanes. None of those close calls were remotely similar in any way to believing that a criminal was about to shoot me to death. I can’t convey the terror, despair, moral outrage, and sense of hopelessness. It was a kind of hell that permanently diminished me.

And I wasn’t even shot. The people in the Westgate Mall in Nairobi were shot and saw others being shot. Hand grenades were thrown at them. They were chased, cornered, and murdered. Their final moments were horrible beyond anything you can imagine.

Later, Tim and I figured out that the man who attacked us was one of Larry’s customers, a creepy little gun enthusiast who jabbered endlessly about special forces and testicles. Larry hired him to murder us and steal the truck, and then Larry could make an insurance claim. We know this because when we yelled at him to come inside the store, he wouldn’t.

“No, no. I’m fine,” he called. He sounded vague and preoccupied because—we now think—he was having a furious, whispered consultation with the rat-eyed special-forces geek:

“Whatta we do, man? Whatta we do?”

“I…I don’t know! Can’t you go in there and get ’em?”

“What if they got a crowbar, man? I can’t go in there! Make ’em come out!”

He was a strutting ninja ambushing us with his gun in the parking lot, but when it came time to go in after us, he lacked the very balls he was always raving about. And we didn’t even have firearms! That’s another reason we know he wasn’t a pro. My advice to anyone who ever finds him- or herself facing a gun is to turn and run as fast as you can. It’s the last thing a criminal expects.

The radio said that in Nairobi, one gunman tried to escape among the fleeing hostages but was identified and taken into custody. You can bet that the Kenyans did everything they could to him to find out what they needed to know. And whatever they did to him wasn’t enough. According to the news, an assault has been launched to rescue the remaining hostages and kill the terrorists.


When this situation is over, the people who ordered it must be killed. Personally, I wouldn’t oppose the use of tactical nuclear weapons. The mall is owned by an Israeli company. There’s no doubt that the Israelis will help the Kenyans get some payback.

And no, it isn’t a “cycle of violence.” The Kenyans invaded Somalia after enduring years of terrorist attacks. Al-Shabaab isn’t “retaliating” for anything. They’re the aggressors, and this atrocity is not the same as an armed intervention. The Kenyan army went up against men with weapons who prided themselves on their fighting prowess. Well, the Kenyans were better fighters. So al-Shabaab decided to murder unarmed civilians to make up for having their butts handed to them.

Now the Kenyans and the Israelis will make sure this doesn’t happen again for a while.

You may oppose what the Kenyans and Israelis will do, but I don’t. I’ve had a gun shoved in my face and thought that I was only seconds from having my life taken in an extremely violent manner. Being chased by a terrorist who wants to murder you is a form of murder itself. That sense of helplessness and vulnerability never left. I feel it to this day. The world would become a much better place if everyone went through what Tim and I survived on December 28, 1995.

If everyone shared the experience of the Westgate Mall atrocity, there’d be no hand wringing or controversy when the forces of righteousness do what’s necessary to stop the forces of evil.

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