Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Spectre of Charles Whitman

As I wrote on the case of the murderous teenage couple in Medicine Hat earlier this year, who paralled the Charles Starkweather murders almost fifty years before there is an earlier cultural archtype for the campus shooter in the Charles Whitman case.

In fact the Whitman shooting at the University of Texas Library Tower in the summer of 1966 is the archtype of the phenomena of the random mass killer in American society. Before Ecole Poytechnique, Columbine or Dawson College there was Whitman, the Texas Tower sniper.

The creation of increased police power and gun control that resulted from this first incident of mass murder did nothing to prevent later incidences on campuses and schools across North America. Nor can policing, since it is always after the fact.

Charles Whitman's shootings were considered the impetus for establishing SWAT teams and other task forces to deal with situations beyond normal police procedures. It also led President Lyndon B. Johnson to call for stricter gun control policies

He too was a classic case of the Little Man suffering from the emotional plague. A plague that is spreading in our society in quantum leaps. Despite being found to have had a tumour, Whitmans actions were predetermined by his character. It is the authoritarian character development that is an interaction of society and the individual that is at the core of the creation of this aberrant behaviour. Just as the increase in serial sex murders occured after Jack the Ripper

Charles Whitman: The Texas Tower Sniper

Charlie was admitted to the University of Texas in Austin on September 15, 1961. After years of rigid discipline at home and regimented life in the Marines, he was suddenly free to use his time as he wished. Almost immediately he began to get into trouble. He and some friends were arrested for poaching deer. He accumulated gambling debts and refused to pay them, angering some dangerous characters in the process. His grades were unimpressive. He did manage some improvement after he married his girlfriend, Kathy Leissner, in August, 1962, but the Marine Corps was unforgiving of his previous behavior. His scholarship was withdrawn and he returned to active duty in February, 1963.

He was stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. After a year and a half of freedom, he found the discipline and structure of military life oppressive. His wife was back in Texas finishing her degree and he was lonely. He tried to recapture his scholarship but failed, and was informed that the time he’d spent in Austin did not count as active duty enlistment. He resented the Marine Corps and it showed in his behavior. In November 1963, he was court-martialed for gambling, usury and unauthorized possession of a non-military pistol.

It is not that he, or Starkweather for that matter, are role models, they are not well remembered until events happen to remind us of them. It is that they are personality types, whose existence is increasing in society. It was forty years ago when Whitman climbed the Texas Tower and began shooting. America was at war in Vietnam but its prescence was not yet covered on nightly TV.

Today we are again at war and we are its victims as much as those abroad where the troops fight. It is incidents like Columbine and Dawson, just as it was the Texas Tower shooting that brings the war home.

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