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September 25, 1999


The Long Shadow of the Texas Sniper

Copyright 1999 by the New York Times

Another killing, another show. When Larry Ashbrook opened fire in a Fort Worth church last week, this much was certain: the tragedy would trigger a new flood of sound and fury signifying very little. The mass murders of the past year have proved a fatal attraction for cable news networks seeking ratings and politicians seeking votes, and the Fort Worth installment might still be going on had not the potentially more lethal Hurricane Floyd drowned it out.

Before the latest massacre did fade from view, plenty of nonsense typical of all these incidents was committed in its name. In the ritualized rhetorical shootout over gun control, Al Gore said he was for it; the Bush campaign countered that "not one thing Al Gore proposed would have kept the Fort Worth tragedy from happening." Whom do we root for? True, neither current laws nor any of the modest Administration-backed gun control legislation before Congress would have denied Mr. Ashbrook his arsenal. But George W. Bush, who parrots the N.R.A. line of enforcing existing laws, offers even less.

As if this bipartisan posturing weren't enough, along comes Jerry Falwell to designate the Fort Worth blood bath a hate crime, and to make the statement in Time, now reverberating loudly in conservative media, that "most hate crimes in America . . . are directed at evangelical Christians" rather than "African-American or Jewish people or gays or lesbians." Neither F.B.I. statistics nor the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate crimes, offer an iota of evidence to support this assertion, whose only point seems to be to pit groups against each other by turning victimization into a contest of one-upmanship. It's not even 100 percent clear that hate was the sole or principal motivation of Mr. Ashbrook, whom his neighbors called "crazy Larry." He did scatologically deride Christianity as he opened fire, but he came from a religious family and had been part of a Church of Christ young ministers' group as a teen-ager; the Fort Worth police have found no evidence linking him to hate groups. Like Russell Weston Jr., the schizophrenic man who shot up the U.S. Capitol last year, Mr. Ashbrook had expressed no ideology publicly beyond paranoid screeds fantasizing that he was being shadowed by the C.I.A.

On the same day as the horrors in Fort Worth, as nasty fate would have it, the University of Texas in Austin was officially reopening its long-closed 30-story tower -- the site of the historical progenitor of Mr. Ashbrook's mass murder, the gunning down of 45 people, 14 of them fatally, by the sniper Charles Whitman in 1966. The university was hoping it could put the memory of its saddest day behind it, and it's hard to imagine how the timing could have been worse. Yet by coincidentally reminding us of the Whitman story at this juncture in 1999, the university may have done us an inadvertent favor. That archetypal slaughter of three decades ago offers a hugely valuable perspective that has been lost as our leaders and loudmouths distort or oversimplify the new crop of Whitmans.

Reading the authoritative account of the Whitman case, "A Sniper in the Tower" by Gary M. Lavergne -- which was published in 1997, before our recent mass murders -- one feels it's as much prophecy as history. It may tell us more about the Ashbrooks in our midst than any of the blather of last week.

Charles Whitman, for those who don't remember, was an "all-American boy," the youngest Eagle Scout in the world as a child, a former Marine, a product of Catholic parochial schools, a young man of "high values" according to his professors. He was the antithesis of the stereotype of a mass killer at the time. Unlike the brutal murderers in Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" (then a best seller) or Richard Speck, who had killed eight Chicago nurses just three weeks before the Austin blood bath, Whitman was not a tattooed, creepy drifter who looked like a thug. He further broke the mold by committing his crime in a public place, in a scenario that guaranteed his own death. "Arguably," Mr. Lavergne writes, "he introduced America to domestic terrorism, but it was terrorism without a cause."

Who was he, why did he do it, how could future Whitmans be stopped? Then, as now, Americans struggled frantically to find answers. Ralph Yarborough, the Texas Senator, blamed television (in the season of "The Munsters" and "Bewitched"). Others thought Whitman had been desensitized by the cultural atmosphere generated by the Vietnam War (in which he hadn't served); some called for the abolition of the Marines, since it had harbored both Whitman and Lee Harvey Oswald. J. Edgar Hoover, of all unlikely advocates, suggested more gun control as a preventative (though Whitman was a legal, trained gun owner who could well have run a government-mandated gun-training program). A university psychiatrist to whom Whitman had mentioned his murderous fantasies in a single consultation was pilloried for not locking him up (a legal non-starter, given that Whitman's family and associates all viewed him as a sane, solid citizen). Maybe, Mr. Lavergne writes after sifting all the evidence and concluding that no psychiatric diagnosis is possible, Whitman "was just mean as hell."

When I spoke to the author this week, he said he had no ambitions to predict this year's massacres, but was nonetheless struck by the case of the day trader Mark O. Barton of Atlanta, whose story he found almost identical to the Texas Tower massacre "except for the Tower." (Among the similarities: Whitman, like Barton, killed family members, including his wife, on the eve of his spree and left behind notes saying he did so out of his love for them.) Mr. Lavergne can't pinpoint the cause of Mr. Barton's explosion any more than he can Whitman's. But he did add that it was as absurd to attribute the Atlanta massacre to day trading or the Internet as it would be to attribute Whitman's to the University of Texas. "Some of the pressure on Whitman was that he was taking too many courses, but whose fault was that?" he asked rhetorically, in making the parallel to Mr. Barton's financial overreaching.

Much of our speculation about other mass killers is similarly useless. Salon magazine's Dave Cullen, who has been on top of the Columbine story from the start, reported on Thursday that investigators finalizing the official report on Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold now say they "were never part of the Trench Coat Mafia" and "didn't target jocks, minorities or Christians." In the irrational ravings the boys left behind, they railed "against minorities and whites, praising Hitler's 'final solution' -- and then ranting against racism." Salon quotes the case's lead investigator, Kate Battan: "I've been working on this nonstop daily since April 20th and I can't tell you why it happened." Now we know that most of the other expert answers we've had are not only pure speculation of the same sort that trailed the Whitman case but are based on erroneous information to boot.

Since we don't know why some of these cases happen, how do we prevent them? "It is part of being in a free and open society," says Mr. Lavergne, "that people can, if they want to, do a fairly large amount of damage in a fairly short time." He is echoed by Mark Potok, spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center, who, while applauding law enforcement's improved record on preventing extremist terrorist conspiracies since Oklahoma City, says he doesn't know how you can stop some lone-wolf mass killers, whatever their motivation, without a Draconian repeal of civil liberties.

While many of us may agree with the need for far more effective gun control and a far stronger mental health safety net -- desirable reforms that could make a difference in some cases -- we can't pretend that either could stop a mass killer with a will, a death wish and easy access to any of the country's 200 million privately held guns. Politicians and other public figures who pop up after these massacres to imply otherwise are either manipulating us or exploiting these tragedies for their own purposes at a time when, paradoxically, most violent crime is on the wane. Arguing against hate-crime laws in tomorrow's New York Times Magazine, the writer Andrew Sullivan observes that there's no way to eradicate hate in a free country. The same, sadly, could be said of that indefinable element in a Whitman, a Barton, a Harris and perhaps now an Ashbrook that, if only for lack of a more precise term, we call evil.

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