Monday, April 16, 2007

Death on the Campus

On August 1, 1966, a 25-year-old student and former Marine named Charles Whitman, after killing his wife and his mother the night before, barricaded himself at the top of a 27-story tower on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin and started shooting. He killed 14 people and wounded 45 before two lawmen finally worked their way up to the top of the tower and shot him dead.

Forty years later, he has been outdone. At this point, we know very little about the man with the guns on the Virginia Tech campus. One of the witnesses has said, “He was just a normal looking kid, Asian, but he had on a Boy Scout type outfit.”

Charles Whitman, a former Eagle Scout from a troubled family, four months before he did it had told a campus psychiatrist that he felt an urge to “start shooting people with a deer rifle” from the University tower. He was on medication for depression.

No matter what we learn about today’s shooter, we will in the end probably know no more about him than we do about Charles Whitman, certainly not what we want to know most: Was there any way to have predicted and prevented his actions?

In all the decades since Whitman, we have learned nothing that could have spared us today. “Mental illness” will undoubtedly be the verdict, but that’s a description, not a diagnosis or possible cure.

Whitman and today’s killer have this in common: They both looked calm and determined, and neither said a word.

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