August 1, 1966—As receptionist Edna Townsley sat at the tower observation deck at the University of Texas at Austin, she did not see a figure stepping out of the elevator hauling a US Marine Corp. footlocker.
She had no way of knowing, then, that Charles Whitman, a former student at the school and Marine, had just murdered his mother and wife in their homes; that he was about to hit Edna from behind and leave her to bleed to death on the floor; that he would kill, at point-blank range, two families of tourists ascending the stairwell; and that, at noon, he would commence shooting others from this tower. When two police officers finally were able to bring him down by rushing the tower an hour and a half later, 14 people lay dead and another 32 wounded as a result of his grisly, deadline accurate shooting.
Texans might be excused for thinking that they had seen some eerie version of this event only 2½ years before, as another troubled ex-serviceman used a high-powered firearm from a high vantage point. But unlike Lee Harvey Oswald, Whitman was not interested in a single target, and some version of his massacre would be repeated endlessly in the years to come.
The media have almost invariably highlighted a confluence of factors behind shocking acts of violence—notably, a fractured, lone-wolf psyche and easy access to weapons. Most often, they evoke the anomie of a nobody asserting his identity and mark on history, even if only through massively destructive violence—a theme propounded most starkly in the Stephen Sondheim musical Assassins.
In particular, Whitman’s shooting spree has become fodder for the entertainment industry, notably in the 1975 TV movie The Deadly Tower, starring Kurt Russell , and the song “The Ballad of Charles Whitman,” by singer-turned-gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman. But the one with which I am familiar—the one I’ll discuss now—is singer Harry Chapin’s recreation of the media circus surrounding this awful event and the twisted mind of the murderer in his song “Sniper.”
I had listened to this record of my older brother’s constantly in my tweens, but had not heard it all the way through for nearly three decades. When I did so again on the radio two weeks ago while returning from vacation, it was as if I were listening to the song for the first time. I now knew just enough about the event so that, when I heard the lyrics about the tower, I sensed it had something to do with Whitman.
In fact, Chapin was inspired by this tragedy, though his protagonist remains unnamed and he appears to have altered some facts (his protagonist's relationship with his mother was empty of love, whereas, despite the act that ended their relationship, Whitman did not grow up angry and resentful at his mother). Eight years ago, Sean T. Collins’ deeply insightful blog post about the song discussed not only how, through narrative and music, Chapin described the peculiar psychology of the mass murderer, but also how the singer had eerily anticipated so much—the crime scene chaos, the mass-media post-mortems—that have become so familiar since then.
All these years later, Chapin's song stands out as even more daring than it did back in an age of notably ambitious and accomplished songwriting.
But what if it was all beside the point?
Here's what I mean: The environment--both at home and in the larger society--that is presumed, so often, to have shaped murderers, may not have played a role at all in Whitman's rampage.
Whitman himself suspected as such. In a suicide note he left before his killing spree, he wondered how he could have killed his wife when he loved her dearly. He couldn't explain precisely what had gone wrong with his life, but he knew that something had bedeviled him: "I don’t really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I can’t recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts."
After the massacre, an autopsy was performed in accordance with the wish he expressed in his message that his brain be examined to determine if something had changed in it.
In fact, something had. In an article in the July/August issue of The Atlantic, "The Brain on Trial," David Eagleman notes that the Whitman autopsy revealed that the mass murderer had a tumor in the brain the diameter of a nickel. It had pressed against the amygdala, a region of the brain involved in regulating fear and aggression.
Eagleman's piece poses uncomfortable questions about free will, determinism and justice that promise to echo even longer than the shots that came out of Charles Whitman's rifle at the top of the college campus tower 45 years ago.