Here in Austin this was a big day in the media, though not one recognized nationwide. 40 years ago today a troubled ex-Marine named Charles Whitman climbed the clock tower of the University of Texas administration building and began to gun down students and passersby on the south and west malls of the University and on nearby Guadalupe Street.
Before heading to the University Whitman had killed his mother and his wife in their home, leaving behind a detailed suicide note with instructions to give his estate to psychological research and do an autopsy to determine if there was something physically wrong with his brain. As it turned out there was a tumor in his hypothalamus which may have been pressing on his amygdala and altering his emotional state.
He was able to get a footlocker and a small wooden crate full of guns into the building and to the top of the 27-storey tower, including a Remington 700 rifle with a hunting scope, an M1 Carbine, another rifle, a shotgun and a variety of small arms. He started firing at 11:48 and ultimately killed 16 people and wounded another 31.
The incident ended when Austin police officers Ray Martinez and Houston McCoy were able to break through the barricade Whitman had made to block the observation deck door. Martinez shot him repeatedly with his service revolver and McCoy hit him with a shotgun blast. Whitman was dead before he hit the floor.
Whitman, the UT Clock Tower and the events of August 1st of 1966 have become ingrained in popular culture, even as symbols in the minds of those who have no specific awareness of the events. It was the first widely publicized mass random killing of this sort, the model for novelists, moviemakers and copycats. It was also the first incident of this sort to be covered live on TV, with a camera crew from the local CBS affiliate broadcasting from within the zone of fire. It put Austin on the national map in a negative way which it took the Armadillo, Willie Nelson, South by Southwest and years of great music and heavy partying to live down.
Today it's all a piece of increasingly distant history, but hearing interviews with many of those who were involved on the radio and local television today was enlightening in a bizarre, futureshock or perhaps reverse futureshock kind of way. It was revelatory to be reminded of how different things were in 1966 in Austin and how the city and our world have changed since then.
A few examples relating to the incident stood out. 1966 was really before the introduction of SWAT teams. They were invented at least in part in response to this incident. As a result the response to Whitman's sniping was much more rapid than it would be today, concluded in a couple of hours when today it might have taken twice as long or more. But the process involved a lot more risk for civilians and for the officers involved. Regular patrol officers showed up, there weren't very many of them, they had no special weapons and had to work fast and improvise. There was no real attempt to negotiate, although that might have changed if Whitman had hostages. There was also minimal supervision and coordination, and certainly no scenarios or game plan for dealing with what at the time was a unique situation. There was an aerial flyby and a very unsuccessful attempt to shoot Whitman from the plane, but solving the problem basically came down to a few very brave and outgunned men charging a trained killer.
What struck me as most fascinating were the accounts from several sources of how the police dealt with the lack of covering fire that a SWAT team would provide today. They just went to citizens in the area and asked them to bring their rifles and shoot at the tower, and they all went to their pickups, got their deer rifles and did what they could to help. Their covering fire kept Whitman down and limited him to shooting through a drain opening, pretty much stopping the killing and giving officers the opportunity to get into the building. The officers also deputized one of the citizens to go with them into the tower to give them a bit more firepower, although he didn't end up facing Whitman.
What a different world. First, it was taken for granted that a bunch of people in the area would be carrying powerful rifles openly in their trucks in the middle of the state's capitol city. What's more, the police felt no hesitation in asking those citizens to help out in a dangerous situation and the citizens were eager to do their part. None of this was seen as out of the ordinary or unexpected at the time. Everyone had guns openly in public and they were willing to take responsibility and use them when asked. Perhaps most remarkably, the police saw armed citizens as an asset rather than as a threat.
The shock is how much things have changed today, and not necessarily for the better. Citizens are no longer seen as nor do they see themselves as primarily responsible for their own defense and the defense of others. The armed citizen isn't seen as a force for keeping the peace and assisting authorities, but as a potential threat. We're all seen as Charles Whitmans waiting to happen, and the memory of the responsible citizens who kept him pinned down with their rifles is forgotten. In a city as big as Austin is today you'd likely be pulled over by the police if you carried a hunting rifle in a rack in the back of your pickup, even if it may technically still be legal. You certainly wouldn't be called on to help out if you showed up at a crime scene with a gun.
In the 40 years since 1966 we've seen the increasing infantilization of the population. In the Whitman incident the citizens were treated as adults who could take responsibility and put themselves at risk for the good of the community. Today we're treated like children who cannot be trusted with responsibility and have to be protected by government not only from the Charles Whitmans of the world, but from ourselves as well. Having become used to being treated that way, it seems like more and more of us accept that role and don't feel that we have a responsibility to stand up for others or even for ourselves. And when government doesn't act fast enough to protect us or provide for our needs we become like infants, whining and crying in our powerlessness and frustration.
In a society which has improved in many other ways, these changes are certainly not for the better. We've gained many material things, but spiritually we are weaker and less self-sufficient and less prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and help those around us. As a people we are increasingly risk-averse and passive and indecisive. We are not as familiar with danger, react poorly to it, and expect someone else to fight our battles. The post-war generation which had their pickups parked around UT 40 years ago hadn't been brought up to expect that luxury and they were better for it. They helped stop Charles Whitman. What would you be able to do in that same situation today? Would you be armed? Would you be willing? Would you even be asked?
In a greater sense this issue isn't really about the specific example of an armed citizenry assisting in a crisis situation. Much more simply it's a question of our willingness to be the good samaritan or the good neighbor, to think beyond our own needs and solve problems without having to turn to…