Maybe too many people are too young to remember. Maybe too many older people are suffering from amnesia. But I, for one, remember Aug. 1, 1966 all too well. I remember it screaming from a huge headline in the Minneapolis Star and Tribune. It’s the day a deranged sniper shot to death 16 people and wounded 31 others from his deadly 300-foot-high perch atop the observation tower of the University of Texas, Austin.
I’m surprised that ghastly event has not been mentioned in the media in the past couple weeks. Well, maybe it was; maybe I missed it.
There are chilling, disturbing coincidences between that massacre and the one that happened in Las Vegas. Both men enjoyed gambling to the point it disrupted their lives; both amassed virtual arsenals of weapons; both killed their victims by shooting them from 300 feet above; both snipers kept firing until police stormed their deadly lairs.
I can’t help but wonder if the Vegas killer’s evil deed was somehow “triggered” a half century later by the Austin sniper’s butchery.
Another similarity: Many on the Austin campus thought the loud cracking sounds were coming from a construction site, and when people began to fall down, many thought it was some kind of college-students’ street theater or part of yet another anti-Vietnam war protest. In Las Vegas, most concert-goers thought the sounds were merely firecrackers or fireworks.
The “tower massacre” stunned America because it was such a “new” form of murderous rampage. It happened just short of three years after another unthinkable crime, also in Texas – the assassination of President Kennedy, also committed by a sniper concealed from the fifth floor of a Dallas building.
The Austin incident was one of the first acts of “domestic terrorism” that would stun and outrage us again and again throughout the subsequent decades – violent eruptions that still, to this day, keep us reeling, on-edge. And the demonic domestic terrorism – Timothy McVeigh springs sickeningly to mind – has been compounded by acts of international terrorism, making an already dangerous world more dangerous all the time.
The Texas man’s name was Charles Whitman, a 25-year-old former Marine, born in Florida, who had attended college in Austin. In the months before the killings, he had complained of extreme headaches and sought counseling because of sudden, irrational urges to become violent. The night before the rampage, he killed his mother in her Austin apartment, then stabbed to death his wife. He left handwritten messages – twisted reasonings – about how he loved them but did not want them to suffer because of the shocking publicity that would follow his evil deed.
Just before the noon hour on Aug. 1, Whitman, who had achieved sharpshooter status in the Marines, lugged some kind of large case filled with his rifles to the top of the tower. Then he began his fiendish killing, picking off people on the streets far below going about their daily business: a tower receptionist, many students, a shopkeeper, a policeman, an electrician, a Peace Corps volunteer and a baby boy inside the womb of its mother (she survived, thankfully).
Police stormed Whitman’s perch and shot him dead. An autopsy showed a tumor in his brain that may have been causing his headaches and eruptions of temper, but a definite causal effect was never established. His horrific behavior shocked many because Whitman had been a kind of all-American clean-cut young man: Eagle Scout, a very high IQ, a Good Conduct Medal from the Marines.
Some claimed his father, a perfectionist who could be physically abusive, may have caused his later rages, but it’s all conjecture at best.
Why? Why? Why? That’s the hand-wringing question we keep asking about the Vegas killer. We will probably never know why, and even if we do, an “explanation” can never explain away that infliction of pain and death. “Why” can never bring back the 58 good people who were slaughtered, and “why” will never bring comfort or consolation to families of the deceased and the hideously wounded. That insane massacre will forever remain an open wound, just as 51 years of time have not healed the wounds of the sniper killings in Austin.
In the meantime, we cannot help but feel less secure about the world we live in – all too often wondering with dread when will the next explosive horror erupt? The best defense we have against such darkness is the light of solidarity – constant acts of kindness, people doing daily good deeds for others – nurturing kindness, not stoking cruelty.
Author: Dennis Dalman
Dalman was born and raised in South St. Cloud, graduated from St. Cloud Tech High School, then graduated from St. Cloud State University with a degree in English (emphasis on American and British literature) and mass communications (emphasis on print journalism). He studied in London, England for a year (1980-81) where he concentrated on British literature, political science, the history of Great Britain and wrote a book-length study of the British writer V.S. Naipaul. Dalman has been a reporter and weekly columnist for more than 30 years and worked for 16 of those years for the Alexandria Echo Press.