Category: Review

The Grim Lessons of Charles Whitman

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This article was first published in American Thinker on March 15, 2018

By Steve Campbell

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 modern 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.  Unless otherwise indicated the quotes in this article are from 96 Minutes.

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 two police officers, 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 a 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.

The Farthest: Voyager in Space

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Netflicks:  The Farthest: Voyager in Space

TheFarthest

I don’t want to say that young people today are spoiled by modern conveniences – mostly because it makes me sound like a stereotypical curmudgeon.  But, it is absolutely true and it was true for me as well in those long-ago days when I could be described as “young”.  You, too.   And our parents, and theirs and so on, ad infinitum.  There is only one way to make young people appreciate the technological heritage they have.   The progress from a less complex technology to their time has to be described to them by us involuntary immigrants from the past.

Perhaps only an early-adopter “Space Nerd” from the middle Twentieth Century could explain the early days of the exploration of the Solar System.  That would be Your Humble Narrator and I am stepping up on this occasion to review a Netflick Video about that very subject.  I followed the Voyager missions from their launch in 1977 to the flyby of Neptune in 1989 – and beyond.

Before Voyager

Before there was Voyager, the outer planets were only vaguely known.  In 1977 there had been some probes sent to the outer planets – most notably the Mariner and Pioneer probes, which were not insignificant.  But, this documentary is an appreciation of Voyager – the “Game Changer” in Solar System exploration – and its very momentous accomplishments.  It was the most ambitious and significant exploration of the Solar System of that time and the facts and images gathered are a fundamental part of planetary science to this day.

Because Jupiter is the largest and nearest – at “only” five times the Earth’s distance (One Astronomical Unit (AU)) from the Sun – it was the best known.  Even at that, all that was known was some bands of clouds and a “Great Red Spot”.    We knew that Jupiter had four large moons.  Your average Astronomy Nerd – like Your Humble Narrator – could drag the telescope out of the Garage and show you the Bands and the Spot and the four moons.  He would tell you their names – “Io, Europa, Ganymede and Calisto” – and show you four dots of light surrounding a small dimly striped Jupiter where the Great Red Spot might be barely visible.

The more enthusiastic Nerd will have an even bigger telescope and will almost certainly show you Saturn.  He will twist your arm (literally, if necessary) to show you Saturn!  That is because Saturn is the stunning little toy in the eyepiece that everybody loves to see.  They might look at a picture made by a great observatory and appreciate it, but when they see it in a telescope with their own eye*, it is always a stunning epiphany.  Saturn’s largest moon Titan and a few of the smaller ones are visible in a large amateur ‘scope   About twenty years ago, I showed my mother Saturn and Titan, Rhea and Tethys.  It is a great lumbering 12 inch Dobsonian that has no clock drive to track the planet.  I had to constantly re-adjust the aim and then tell Mom, “Okay – look quick!” and duck out of her way.  She could glimpse Saturn for a scant few seconds until the Earth’s rotation took it out of view.  Then I would step back in to find it again, describe what to look for and where and jump back out of the way.  She was fairly impressed when I told her that very few people on Earth – one in many millions, perhaps – have personally looked through a telescope and seen these.

*With very few exceptions, telescopes are “monocular”.

The next two targets of Voyager Uranus and Neptune were – even with the best telescopes of the day – were still not much more than small indistinct discs of light.

GoingwalkaboutMorseI told you all that so I could tell you to see “The Farthest: Voyager in Space” on Netflix.

The Story of Voyager

The story begins with the engineers who built the thing.  Things, actually – there were two of them.  What they modestly describe is really a miracle of concentrated effort and talent, innovation and adaptation.  Those engineers and planetary scientists that participated in the effort are interviewed, but not in any simple question-and-answer format.  Rather, their responses are woven into the narrative to make a smoothly-flowing saga.

The tale continues. Once the craft were assembled and packaged on their rockets, they were summarily thrown off their native planet – never to return –  in dramatic, suspense-filled launches.

The spacecraft encountered, recorded and sent back to Earth discoveries that, on the one hand confirmed long-held ideas of the nature of the Solar System.  On the other hand, they relayed stunning new revelations that nobody – in their wildest dreams – had imagined could exist.

JupSatUraNep

Each planetary encounter at Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune -and the decisions and the problems – is chronicled and described by the people involved.  There is archival video from the encounter operations where you will recognize younger versions of the interviewees.  After Neptune, the continuing mission of the probes is described.  And all through the narrative, the sounds and pictures of the famous “golden record” (a Human message to the Universe) are heard and displayed.

Doubt me if you must, but this story is a compelling drama, complete with comedy, tragedy, euphoric glory and devastating failure. A well-written, well-produced timeless chronicle of a stunning achievement for all mankind.

This video has become my new “Saturn” moment.  I dragged (figuratively, figuratively!) my Wife to see it with me and she was fascinated by what she had never known.  I am working on appointments to watch it again with First and Second Sons.

Hasta Luego,

Steve

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