Tim Tan Huynh

Charles Whitman

  • 2 Aug 2016
  • The infamous Texas Tower sniper was hurt when he hurt others.

Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the mass shooting at the University of Texas. It was also the first day of the campus-carry law in the state of Texas.

Charles Whitman killed and injured scores of people from the tower on the UT Austin campus on 1 August 1966. The reported number of deaths varies from 14 to 17, but the consensus number of injuries is 31. Whitman definitely killed his mother and wife before he made his fateful stand in the Main Building tower. Whitman’s devastating spree lasted 96 or so minutes before one of two police officers killed him from close range.

The credit for killing Whitman has been disputed for a long time, but information about Whitman and his ailments have been widely communicated. His Marine service was highlighted in Full Metal Jacket, and his brain tumor was mentioned in Mad Men. Not surprisingly, he had a documented history of transgression as a Marine and a confessed fantasy of shooting from the tower.

The realization of Whitman’s fantasy has become known as the first mass murder of its kind in US history. It’s also possibly the impetus for the widespread formation of SWAT units throughout the US. This incident is, I think, a textbook example of a mentally ill person whose potential for being dangerous is recognized without being addressed. Other mass shootings have been more deadly and more recent, but this one is still the most infamous.

The idea of banning certain guns—or certain people—is short-sighted. Restrictions on gun sales, like a No Buy list and longer wait-times, are sensible. They’re not foolproof, though: dangerous people can access, and have accessed, guns that have been legally bought by friends or relatives. Moreover, bladed weapons, homemade explosives, and even moving vehicles can be as deadly and terrifying as automatic guns.

Some European cities have set up de-radicalization programs to deal with the problem of people, mostly younger men, aligning themselves with ISIS, the militant Islamic movement. These programs have success stories, but their efficacy is too difficult to measure. Nonetheless, these cities are confronting the root causes of certain types of premeditated death and destruction in public spaces.

The “Guns don’t kill people” slogan might be trite, but I agree with the general idea. “Hurt people hurt people” is a better mantra that I hadn’t seen or heard until a few weeks ago. It implies that a healing approach is needed. Most perpetrators of these killings are hurting in one or more ways. They’re psychologically unwell, obviously, but they might be culturally, financially, and physically unwell, too.

I’m not naive enough to think that everybody can always get along or that institutions can overhaul themselves overnight. Law-enforcement organizations need to prepare for worst-case scenarios, which include the use of lethal force, but I think that people who are considered to be disturbed and who have no prior history of violent crimes, like Whitman, could be viewed more like people who need to be helped, not people who need to be feared.