The Grim Lessons of Charles Whitman
The era of mass public shootings began with Charles Whitman in 1966. He taught us all we need to know to prevent or minimize such events. We ignored his lessons.
On August first of that year,Whitman rode the elevator to the top of the Clock Tower at the University of Texas at Austin. He rolled a hand truck along with him that carried a footlocker full of guns and ammunition. Soon after ensued the first mass murder in a public place in America.
Texas Monthly Magazine published an in-depth story for the 40th anniversary of this episode in American history. It is entitled "96 Minutes" – you know why. It contains many quotes from individuals who were there or were immediately affected by those events. If, after you read that, Whitman's Lessons are not then apparent, then come back and read on, because those lessons are here named and explained.
I. There will be warnings.
Whitman sought out psychiatric help. He mentioned that the Tower would be a great place from which to shoot people.
From the note he left behind:
I have been fighting my mental turmoil alone, and seemingly to no avail. After my death I wish that an autopsy would be performed on me to see if there is any visible physical disorder[.] ... Maybe research can prevent further tragedies of this type.
II. There are reasons.
This type of behavior does not occur at random. People see trouble coming, but they don't imagine the magnitude of consequences.
Was it his abusive childhood? His overwhelming anger? The amphetamines he consumed, observed one friend, "like popcorn"?
This reporter has seen his type a few times before. There are tales of more. They go along, these amphetamine addicts, energetic and good-natured, until they explode. To reinforce that anecdotal information, the reader is encouraged to research the term "amphetamine psychosis."
Charles Whitman was:
... a good son, a top Boy Scout, an excellent Marine, an honor student, a hard worker, a loving husband, a fine scout master, a handsome man, a wonderful friend to all who knew him – and an expert sniper.
He himself recognized the symptoms (but not the cause) and asked for help that never arrived. One might doubt that the danger was known at the time. A bit of research turned this up:
... a letter by P.H. Connell published in the British Medical Journal on March 9, 1957 ... "[a] common result of amphetamine intoxication is the development of a paranoid psychosis indistinguishable from schizophrenia, during which the patient may be a serious social danger," he wrote.
III. Help will not be in time to save you.
In the absence of any visible police presence, students decided to defend themselves.
The police were armed with revolvers and shotguns. Neither was effective against an enemy atop a 300-foot tower shooting over a chest-high wall.
The populace of U.T. and Austin in 1966 was an armed society. These people felt every right to defend themselves, and they did so in numbers. Among civilians, students and police were those who owned high-powered rifles, many with scopes for long-range targeting. Within 20 minutes, they began to return fire on Whitman, who was forced to give up his place shooting over the wall and from then on shot only through the drain holes at the base of the deck.
In the seventy-odd minutes after that, only one more fatality occurred. When the Tower deck was "stormed" by a two cops [not one –ed.], backed up by a volunteer, Whitman was on the deck, with his rifle's barrel through a drain hole. While he was furiously reversing the rifle out to shoot these "intruders," officers responded with a revolver and a shotgun. Those turned out to be effective after all – at close range.
Had Whitman been standing to shoot over the wall and undistracted by return fire, it might have been a very different story. Thanks, armed society!
IV. Do not dwell on the tragedy.
This one is not immediately obvious.
In the aftermath, don't glorify or name the shooter. Don't dwell on the event. It might be best to just shut up about it – perhaps for many years. Excess attention to the event makes it, in some twisted minds, an exaltation of the actions of the maniac, and that seems to promote similar events. It is known that the publication of suicide stories is a stimulus for more suicides. That once kept people from publishing such stories. The incident was not spoken of much.
A similar event did not occur until 1984 in San Ysidro, California. Another disturbed individual went on a rampage in a fast food restaurant. Among civilians, nobody shot back at all. The police did have a Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team, which arrived only after the majority of deaths had occurred. Whitman's Third Lesson had been ignored, and the shooter had managed to kill 21 and wound 19 others.
The San Ysidro perpetrator had called a mental health clinic and said he had a problem on the day before the event. He made an "offhand" comment about hunting humans on the morning of the incident. Whitman's First Lesson was ignored as well.
Was the 18-year gap a result of the reluctance to talk about Whitman? Perhaps. Whitman's Fourth Lesson could be said to have been postulated that day. Ensuing years seem to have confirmed it – in a negative and tragic way – as the rhetoric about shooting incidents increased and the gaps between such incidents shortened.
The current state of affairs: Paralysis
There have been more and more arms restrictions and regulation. The role of defenders has been taken away from the people and deposited with SWAT teams. Has it improved the situation? Not at all!
Perpetrators are being spotted in advance, but their actions and words are ignored by the very authorities charged with defending the public. Schools are institutionally disarmed and advertised as such. Crimes that would disqualify perpetrators from purchasing weapons under existing laws are not being prosecuted. And some of these shooters seem to have been taking drugs with dangerous side-effects.
So how would we solve these problems?
Let's take the first two together.
The warning and the reason
The answer would have been to take Whitman's Warning seriously and help him to give up his speed habit. Medical science knew the reason, even if Whitman himself did not. If someone had described the problem to him, he might have cooperated with the solution – he wanted to get better!
Don't wait for help
They didn't. How many were saved by the return fire is uncertain, but it is unquestionably "many." The armed society also – albeit unknowingly – paved the way for the final assault on Whitman's "fortress."
Your defense is your responsibility. Blaming others is denial. That you were unprepared is tragic, regrettable, forgivable, even understandable – but not correctable.
The stark reality of Whitman's Third Lesson is this: the best way to deal with a mass shooter is to aim your own gun and shoot back. Even if you miss, you may save lives.
That last thing
What shall we call it? Forbearance? Discretion? Responsibility? Don't talk so much? If mere chronology is any indicator, keeping quiet about Whitman perhaps delayed for 18 years any repeat of the situation. These days, not a year seems to pass without one, while the media analyze and accuse for as long as ratings persist.
Perhaps there is a time to shut up about the subject?
Steve Campbell attended the University of Texas at Austin some years after the Whitman Event. See his writings at Goingwalkabout.blog.