On this date 50 years ago, Charles Whitman, a 25-year-old ex-Marine and engineering student, climbed to the observation deck of the Tower at the University of Texas in Austin and shot 49 people, killing 14. Earlier in the day he had stabbed his wife and mother to death; Whitman himself was shot and killed by an Austin police officer. No American who was alive in the summer of 1966 is likely to have forgotten the shock of Whitman's rampage. And while we have grown accustomed to such events in the intervening half-century, the horror of that day remains indelible.
In one significant detail, however, things are different now. Immediately after the massacre, Texas governor John Connally appointed a commission of inquiry—not to reconstruct the event, the details of which seemed straightforward, nor to consider the shootings (which occurred in the state's capital city) from a political standpoint. In a post-mortem examination, a small tumor had been discovered in Whitman's brain and, accordingly, Connally's commission was composed of neurologists, psychiatrists, pathologists, and psychologists in an effort to determine why, not how, Whitman had committed mass murder, and whether the tumor might have influenced his behavior.
The immediate diagnosis, after the autopsy, was that the tumor was unlikely to have affected Whitman's mind. But the Connally Commission drew a different conclusion, conceding that while "the relationship between the brain tumor [and Whitman's actions] cannot be established with clarity ... [the] tumor conceivably could have contributed to his inability to control his emotions and actions." Of course, there will never be a definitive answer to the question posed by Connally's commission, but the nature of its inquiry is revealing.
Nowadays, of course, such tragic events are infused almost exclusively with political significance: Whether or not the perpetrator was advancing some political (or religious) cause; whether improved security measures might have prevented the incident; and especially, how the incident affects prospects for gun-control legislation, especially in Congress. Yet apart from inquiries into family background and stated beliefs, or passing references to the existence of evil, the instinct to comprehend such atrocities in terms of the human mind seems to have disappeared entirely from public discourse. And the reliance of the Connally Commission on medical expertise, and scientific induction, to explain the enigma of Charles Whitman seems naive, even counterintuitive.
Is this progress?