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 lone cop with a revolver, backed up by a volunteer with a shotgun, Whitman was prone on the deck, with his rifle’s barrel through a drain hole.  While he was furiously reversing the rifle out to shoot these “intruders,” he met the revolver bullets – all of them.  The officer then grabbed the shotgun and emptied that as well.

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!

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