who was that again?

Posted: October 2, 2017 in Observations and Commentary
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Not so very long ago Americans knew who Charles Whitman was. On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman shot 46 people from the 27th floor of the University of Texas Tower in Austin. Fifteen died. It shocked the country. The following week the cover of Life magazine was a sobering photograph of the UT Tower through a window with two bullet holes. The shooting was so horrifying and unique that the two major wire news organizations (Associated Press and United Press International) ranked it as the second most important story of the year. The Vietnam War was first. Yes, everybody knew who Charles Whitman was.

For years afterwards, indeed decades, when Americans thought of mass shootings, this one incident and one man came to mind. This type of purposeful gun violence just did not happen in the United States. It was so unusual that over the years movies (Target, The Deadly Tower) and songs (Sniper, The Ballad of Charles Whitman) emerged about it. The tragedy was mortifying, gut wrenching, and all the things we expect something like this to be. Mostly, however, it was an aberration.

Today Charles Whitman would be just another on a list of names, a list growing so long we can’t even remember them all. Who was it that murdered 12 people in an Aurora movie theater? What about the student who killed 33 at Virginia Tech, what was his name? Those two kids in Columbine who murdered just as many as Charles Whitman, surely we remember who those monsters were, right? Then there was the man…jeez, what was his name…who severely injured Representative Steve Scalise at the congressional charity baseball game less than four months ago? And speaking of taking down elected officials, who was the guy who shot Gabby Giffords in the head, killed six, and wounded 18 others at a public gathering in Arizona? Hard to keep up, isn’t it?

To be fair, some names stick. It takes another layer of unspeakable heinousness for this to happen, yet it does happen. If you commit a racially motivated slaughter of churchgoers or massacre children in an elementary school, for example. But 50 years removed from Charles Whitman, remembering who committed which mass shooting, *that* has become the aberration.

It is possible many of us, including me, will not remember Stephen Paddock’s name next year. However, given our sorry history of dealing with these tragedies in any meaningful way, one thing is certain. By the time we have forgotten who the 2017 Las Vegas gunman was, that list of mass shooters will be even longer.

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