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America's First Mass Killer - A Dark Mood

Photo: Tamir Lakifa © 2016

Fifty years ago today, a sniper peered down from the top of the University of Texas tower at the ants below, little hungry blips rushing for food. It was almost lunch hour.

Charles Whitman could feel like GOD from the 29th floor, watching the puny creatures below. His fantasy was not unlike those of many other young men who ascended the tower. The difference? Whitman carried high velocity rifles.

Fifty years after the first mass shooting in the modern era, the University of Texas erected a monument in memory of the fallen. A cynic watching the memorial ceremony said, “Random mass killings are so common now, it was safe for the University to hold a memorial without calling attention to its violent past.” Maybe?

To paraphrase University President Gregory Fenves:

At that time nobody could have imagined Whitman’s act. It was as improbable as a UFO with aliens landing on top of the Tower. He reminded his memorial audience: in the previous era Texans believed in returning to the business at hand. Shattered plate glass windows were replaced, life went on. 50 years ago, there were no grief counselors, or days of mourning. The old Texas mentality lived: if you’re bucked off the horse, pick yourself up, dust yourself off and climb back on ready to ride. The University didn’t let a little mass murder stop business as usual. Maybe not the most sensitive reaction? But ask the Parisians. After terrorists murdered cartoonists of the humor magazine Charlie Hebdo, Parisians stood up and insisted terrorists won’t intimidate us, we refuse to live with fear, we are going to continue as usual.

The new University functioning with a smooth corporate veneer produced a tasteful memorial ceremony with stunning touches like stopping the university tower clock at 11:48, the moment that the first student, Claire Wilson, was hit by gunfire. At that moment flags were lowered to half staff and the Tower clock stopped, fixed for 24 hours on the moment of the first murder. These gestures are symbolic of a new consciousness at the University of Texas that will reverberate through time.

After the ceremony, liberal Austin news outlets like NPR ran first person accounts of what they described as that “astonishing day.” When in fact the special gun culture of Texas didn’t make the day “astonishing” at all. 50 years ago I quizzed male students in the Student Union and almost three quarters admitted they imagined plinking people off when visiting the observation deck of the Tower. I remember a couple years before, in high school in East Texas, on the first day of deer hunting season half the male students skipped class. But to be truthful, deer hunting for most was a chance to sit in a tree in a deer blind, drinking, telling tall tales, and getting away from it all. Occasionally deer would wander up to eat the deer corn scattered on the ground and provide a close impossible to miss shot, even dead drunk. But most deer hunters never fire a shot. I‘ve heard so many critics condemn deer hunting as savagery and then go for hamburgers. I guess they like their “savagery” neatly out of the way in corporate slaughter houses. Even if by 1966 most guys hadn’t been deer hunting, the Texas fantasy of manly gun-toting independence ran deep. A completely logical outgrowth of TX gun culture.

Opponents of gun carrying often ignore the positives of an armed populace. As Whitman blasted young students into oblivion his deadly aim was interrupted because other students ran into their dorm rooms, got their hunting rifles, and began firing back. Without this return fire Whitman would have killed many, many more. In the worst case, Whitman could have shot freely, resting his rifle on the parapet for better aim, on and on for more than an hour. That’s an argument for the security of an armed populace. Students with rifles saved many lives that day. If the only alternative to civilians with guns is a defenseless population waiting for the police to show up, the truth is many more will die.

The local Austin media ran the unpredictable “astonishment” theme into the ground, this embracing of a feigned innocence suggested by the word “astonishing” was undercut by the truth of the Texas culture. The new Texas law, allowing concealed guns on campus, went into effect this very day of the memorial. It is now legal to carry concealed loaded weapons on campus. Isn’t that Texas gun mythology in spades?

Two views: on one hand, I’ve talked with regular UT coeds who said they were afraid to walk across campus alone at night. On the other, during a radio interview a young woman said she was looking forward to carrying a loaded gun in her purse. She didn’t want to walk around feeling like a victim.

As Whitman carnage reveals, gun use creates conflicting ideologies. If guns are outlawed then criminals will have guns and in deadly confrontations the unarmed public will feel like victims at their mercy. If guns are more widely held, statistics prove most are used killing family members in raging arguments.

In absurdist vision, one can easily imagine an armed adolescent student yelling at his Professor: “D +. You gave me a D + and lots of idiots here got C’s. I’m going to lose my scholarship” ...then redressing this grievance by blasting the Professor into eternity with his gun while classmates watch in horror.

Of course another student would pull his firearm and blast the killer. But guns kick, and after the first bullet adrenaline floods through the body erasing rationality. The following shots would fly wide hitting other students cowering by their desks. This might prompt more students to start shooting at the fool who couldn’t shoot straight. One could imagine a mass enrolment Intro to Biology class resembling a scene from WW2, ending with dozens of casualties being carted away on stretchers.

Perhaps the deeper question raised by this memorial day of the first mass killing on campus: why is America, and Texas, fixated with gunfights as entertainment? Subscribe to Netflix, Amazon or Hulu and most of the new dramas are twisted criminal and cop shows offering a thousand varieties of gun battles and the power of killing as entertainment. As we all know graphic love-making is illegal on TV, while it’s perfectly OK to depict bullets perforating a body causing bright red blood to mushroom everywhere.

On our planet now most people live in urban environments and some experience incredible stress. In huge cities people – to use an unscientific word – “get crazy.” In America people often act out their “crazy” compulsions/frustrations by killing innocent people. In India, or Japan, disturbed people turn that frustration inward and more commonly commit suicide rather than randomly killing strangers. America’s madness, or we could say the mad in America, picture a certain relief in slaughtering people they don’t even know. Seems like a strange power trip?

On this Memorial day there were the tragic personal stories of that day long ago. I remember Sandra Wilson who was shot through the lung. As in most times of crises, Austinites rallied. Volunteer doctors and nurses hurried to Brackenridge Hospital to care for the wounded. By necessity a triage system was put in place. A victim was put in one of three categories: hopeless, will survive, and requiring immediate surgery to save their life. Shot through the lung, Sandra Wilson was put on a gurney in the hall struggling for each breath. In the tumult, surgeons worked to save the critical whose lives hung in the balance. There in the hall, after a couple of hours, in pain and fear as the minutes ticked by, endless minutes, Sandra thought she was forgotten and was going to die. Late that afternoon, a nurse stopped and explained that she could survive breathing with one lung and that she wasn’t going to die. She would be operated on that evening.

A horror. But we Americans in a new selfie narcissism wallow in our comparatively minor suffering while forgetting others. Did the heat get to my mind? Did I imagine too many televised images of people suffering? For a moment at the memorial service it didn’t seem like our compassion extended very far. President Fenves announced that grievance counselors would be available for any that needed them. It was another graceful gesture.

But my mind kaleidoscoped through images of refugees from the fighting in Syria who hock their last possessions to get their families on dangerous boats to escape the carnage destroying their homes. Then if they make it across the sea the very governments that help tear their country apart shuffle them off to what amounts to a prison camp. Tens of thousands of Sandra Wilsons are there but none are visited by a kindly nurse explaining – “not to worry; you won’t die.”

Surrounded by the many Texas family members still mourning after all these years and the memorial stone carved out of pink Texas granite with each dead person’s name put me in a dark mood.

I stopped to talk with two women, the only protestors of open carry gun law. We soon were talking about the state of the country and their protest of “Black Lives Matter.” They were respectful of the memorial ceremony but deeply troubled by the continued killing of Americans by guns. According to the Washington Post 990 people, mostly minorities, were shot dead by police in the last year.

990 lives – that dwarfs the number killed by Whitman. But white university students are held in higher esteem than members of the lower economic class. Looking at the statistics the pattern is unchanging. Public controversy is not reducing police use of lethal force.

The two serious looking anti-gun, Black Lives Matter protestors looked like they were suffering in the hot August sun. Finally I said, “Statistics prove you got the slogan wrong. A more true and evocative slogan would be “Black Lives Don’t Matter.”

A protest sign would look like this:

Jeff Shero Nightbyrd © 2016

Jeff Nightbyrd is a journalist and talent scout who lives in Austin, he was the co-founder of the original Austin Sun


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