Just days ago, August 1, was the 50th anniversary of the gruesome 1966 University of Texas at Austin Tower sniping murders in which Charles Whitman, a 25 year old student shot 16 people to death and wounded 30 others. It took three brave police who forced their way onto the walkway on the tower, to shoot him to death with their pistols to end the massacre. Since as a psychiatrist, long interested in this kind of phenomenon since early unsettling forensic contact with a few shooters, I came across through my trust ever roving “search bots,” this article from NPR news on one of their blogs, recounting this fateful incident, “Gun Violence and Mental Laws, 50 Years After Texas Tower Sniper,” by Lauren Silverman.
I was quite young then, but my father’s entire extended family was from Texas and we were riveted to the television as the “tapes” of the scene were played over and over on the evening news for a few days. I had been to the mall/quad/courtyard in front of the Tower before and since the incident, but watching the scene, especially the scene of the young man covering the body of a friend with his own in the open and being shot at, was literally unbelievable in that day and time. The entire nation stopped for a few days as the horrors of the event were absorbed and the trauma processed as best one could. I recall that it was one of those events that one who lived through it, would remember the rest of their lives, where they were when they heard the news and recalls the shattering effect of the evening television news scenes. It ranked in “trauma impact” up there with the assassination of President Kennedy, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon during that night in 1969 and other such indelible events that our brains cannot expunge.
I recall the debate that surged for a period of time of whether the scenes of the taped news footage should be shown on tv at all, and if it should be repeated for days on end as the aftermath of the event seemed to demand. I recall commentators for a brief period debating whether it was too traumatic to be viewed by the public. Of course, that did not last but a few hours but the debate continued on the significance and mystery of the event and its macabre but necessary viewing over and over, as we all sought to defuse the shock, unreality and traumatic nature of what we all had experienced collectively. My parents had very different reactions. My mother, an exploratory geologist by training, had gone back to graduate school in psychology and patiently explained to me for a few days the nature of emotional trauma and the need of the human psyche to somehow master it, and remove some of its compelling or horrific qualities. I remember her talking about this was a process that needed to be done “right” somehow to prevent one’s personality from becoming inured and blunted or immune to the bad effects of trauma, and to be able to retain the good human qualities of being saddened, repelled and otherwise offended somehow by such events rather than becoming fascinated and captivated by them, and delighting in them. At the time, where we living was having a plague of arson set fires and I remember her predicting to me in an unsettling manner that when the culprit was found, it would be someone with a “fascination with fire.” As it turned out, this came to be true just days after the Texas Tower massacre and it all got beshmirgled together psychologically in my young psyche as making some kind of sense.
My father, on the other hand, related the event to what he had witnessed in World War II, unspeakable atrocities, sudden horrific losses of comrades and buddies in explosions, bombs bursting accidentally at airfield ammunition dumps, killing multiple soldiers who happened to be near the site of such random explosions. But it was his accounts, that I had never heard before, of piloting his B-17 bomber over Italy, Germany and the oilfields of Polesti, that burned themselves into my mind with terrifying clarity. For I realized it was my father who had experienced overwhelming trauma. He told of flying along preparing for bombing runs and seeing something out of the corner of his eye, looking out the side of the cockpit to see only a wisp of smoke where the plane piloted by a buddy had been, blown instantaneously out of the sky by enemy flak from the ground, all disappearing, plane, men and all. He told of the cold fear and total silence that would grip everyone of the crew as they all took in the loss they had witnessed, knowing it could have been them, and being unable to say anything, but only able to proceed almost automaton-like on with the bombing run to its conclusion without comment until their return to their airfield base, Foggia Field on the eastern coast of Italy and having to give the casualty report. My father then revealed to my utter amazement that this was the reason he had not been able to fly in commercial aircraft without great fear and “a couple of stiff drinks,” none of which I had known…
I recall the months of debates after Whitman’s death concerning his possible motives as it all seemed a great mystery to most, he a quiet UT student who murdered his mother and wife at home, coldly and efficiently went about the preparations just days before of purchasing guns, ammunition and lugging it all up the stairs of the Tower, settling in and starting to fire away that day. He was found to have a brain tumor and that was debated endlessly. But the art of post trauma debriefing, and psychological autopsies were new to the public and in their relative infancy even in law enforcement circles at those times. Motive was often betrayed by the crime, or just 10 years before, you were a “Commie,” or a “nut,” and that was about the extent of analyses of the day.
In my own college years as I gravitated to psychiatry, I happened to read several books on the Texas Tower sniping massacre, including the book cited in the article above, Gary Lavergne’s, A Sniper in the Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders. The author had done a masterful piece of after the fact journalism, documenting many issues not really discovered by the hasty repetitive coverage of the event in 1966, as alluded to in Ms. Silverman’s NPR article. But it still did not fully explain the rage that somehow built up in this supposedly “All American” conventional looking young man who turned into a mass murderer. Whitman was found to be a near failing student, who had had recurring violent fantasies that he actually reported to a school mental hygiene clinic professional, abused amphetamines and also abused his young wife. He had also grown up in a home where his father was abusive. So, there was a plethora of almost too many causes to explain singly what motivated Charles Whitman.
Now we are seemingly gripped by an epidemic of mass shootings almost every week. The increasing frequency seems to have overtaken us since the Columbine high school shootings by the two teens in 1999. Analysts, statisticians, talking heads and all kinds of both well meaning and self serving experts have weighed in constantly for now over a decade on this national phenomenon. The anti-gun crowd points to it as a symptom of our “gun culture,” now run amok; public health academicians produce statistics that seem to show the growing availability of guns has increased the rate of murder-suicides, mass shootings and maybe even fleas in our pets. [Pardon my pan-sarcasm on all fronts, as I do not think anyone has THE answer]. The media analysts are now debating the worry that the constant and repetitive reporting of our now weekly mass shootings, contributes to the increasing frequency in a manner not seen ever before, given the new ubiquitious nature of our lives totally immersed in and surrounded by inescapable media stimulation through televisions, computers, tablets, and our phones. Many commentators have revived that this epidemic is aided by the prevalence or even the possible increases in mental illness in modern times, and lay the blame on our growing awareness that our mental health treatment system is and has been broken for decades. And arising out of that logic, many thinkers and commentators, have called for increased funding and fundamental repair top to bottom, hospital to community based services of our mental health care delivery apparatus. I have no argument with that sentiment, but I doubt that with comprehensive mental health care even routinely available in our schools for troubled, abused and needy children, will we make too much of a dent in the occurrence of mass shootings. We will still have angry warped personalities who are not officially “mentally ill,” who will commit atrocities as their vengeful antisocial solutions.
But this is not to say that our crusade and national repair effort of the fractured mental health care morass we have now, should stop; on the contrary, it must be addressed for a multitude of reasons and social and individual needs that existed long before mass shootings began to manifest themselves in a national somewhat culturally based manner. I add the above sentiment as in other pressurized, crowded, relentless, competitive modern societies there exist varieties and “styles” [if I can be permitted the use of such a mundane term in this somber discussion] of mass murdering sprees. There is little awareness that in the People’s Republic of China, or “Red China,” as my late World War II veteran father always called it, there is another mode of mass murder. Guns are so controlled in China, that the average NRA member would die in instant Second Amendment apoplexy, or as my Texas sister says, “a paralyzed fit.” Guns only exist in the hands of the police and military, period. So people driven to mass murder sprees in China, enact their murder sprees largely with knives which are readily available to anyone with a kitchen and cutlery. These persons grab knives and without warning, go into malls and strangely enough, into elementary and preschools, and slash and stab to death as many victims as they can until they are stopped usually by being physically restrained by other nearby adults or shot to death by the authorities. And in the authoritarian society of China, there is little open debate, discussion, study or analysis of these individuals and their culturally specific murder sprees, their motivations, triggers, emotional build-up or anything. They are often summarily tried and often executed or sent off to gulag prisons never to be seen again, and a shame to their families who usually never discuss the matters publicly, ever. So we learn almost nothing from a social “experiment” going on in another society that could teach us all about these issues and what motivates persons to commit mass murder sprees. We have our own ideas that are highly culturally specific and colored by our western, American experience and history. But I think the social phenomenon that seems to be occurring in China could help our understanding when there is more intellectual and scholarly openness there that could furnish us data and information of benefit toward understanding this complex modern mystery.
Meanwhile, we will continue to have our own peculiar [meaning particular American] avowed remedies along the lines of more guns everywhere, in churches and oh yes especially bars. We should become a completely armed citizenry as we all turn into constant paranoids, eyeing even our long known friendly neighbor as a potential mass shooter who could turn on us at any moment. Yes, I can just see it being the norm to drive around with the family, and not be perturbed by the sight of the Saturday suburban lawn horticultural perfectionist, riding his $2,000 riding lawn mover with his body armor on and having his AR-15 on his lap as he mows painstakingly around his flower beds.