July 15, 2016
We're in the morning after the attacks in Nice. My original intention was to discuss the CRISPR research in genetics, and its potential, but the mass murders in recent weeks and especially last night just seem to overwhelm everything else. One TV commentator this morning suggested we stop referring to the killers not connected with ISIS as 'lone wolves.' "Call them lone sheep," he said. My thought: "Lone idiots." But maybe I have that wrong.
During my coming-of-age years in the 50's, the United States had only one mass murder. The earliest one I can remember reading about in the newspapers happened in 1966 at the University of Texas. Charles Whitman, 25 at the time, murdered his mother and his wife, leaving behind a note stressing how much he loved them, but didn't want to leave them to deal with the fallout from what he was about to do. So he stabbed both. Then he went to the 28th floor observation deck of an on-campus tower and used an arsenal of assorted weapons to kill 14 passers-by and wound 32 more. Mass murders in earlier years had not only been rare, but had usually been limited to family members or people who got in the way during a robbery.
Whitman was apparently the first person on record to engage in a random shooting. Reading about him at the time provided some shocks. He'd been an Eagle scout and a U.S. Marine. He seemed to have been happily married. And according to reports, he had an IQ of about 140. So much for the lone idiot.
One detail that came out later: Whitman had been seriously mistreated by his father, a disciplinarian who had no reluctance about administering beatings.
Whitman was court-martialed by the Marines for gambling and possession of a firearm, but he was eventually honorably discharged. He'd been enrolled at the University of Texas in a Marine-sponsored program, but that had been cut short because his grades didn't make the minimum requirement. After leaving the Corps, he returned to the university, and enrolled again. He supported himself through a number of jobs, so it's fairly clear he didn't have much leisure time. People who knew him thought he wasn't sure precisely who he was, and that he was afraid of the person he might become. Some reported he's assaulted his wife a couple of times. Also, he'd formed an amphetamine habit.
Why are these mass shootings happening now on a regular basis? The history of the perpetrators invariably suggests disappointment, lost girlfriends, a sense of failure, rage rising from real or imagined mistreatment. Why does someone seek to inflict damage on strangers? Why else but to spread the pain around?
Another theory: With the arrival of TV and the internet, everybody wants to be noticed.
I doubt there's a simple explanation for behavior that causes irreparable harm to others, and ends probably in death. Outrage is unquestionably involved. Life seldom turns out the way we want, and some are simply not good at making the adjustment. And of course I can draw attention to myself. Even get on TV. Maybe even get a lot of people to see me as a hero if I attack a segment of society that is under prejudicial scrutiny. And the entire process is made less difficult if I have the right medications.
Are we insane when we take the lives of strangers? I'm not sure. Certainly we are no longer rational by any reasonable standard. And it's possible we know that what we are doing is wrong. But we may no longer be entirely in control of the forces that drive us.
I have no solution. There's no way to get rid of the surplus guns, which make everything so easy. And by the way they ramp up the suicide rate as well. (We have more guns than people in the United States.) But I support the second amendment. Except when someone's pointing a gun at me and pulls the trigger. And yes, it did happen once, by a friend when I was about 15. He thought it was funny and never imagined the weapon might be loaded as I dived under a table. It was part of a collection owned by an older friend who wasn't good at keeping his weapons safe.
Let's close with good news. Astronomy Magazine reports that new technology has shown that black holes are merging somewhere every eight hours.