Charles Whitman and the Texas Tower Killings
An Essay by
John David Ebert
At approximately 11:35 a.m. on August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman entered the Texas Tower at the University of Texas, Austin, dragging a footlocker on a dolly behind him. He was wearing blue-gray coveralls to disguise himself as a janitor, although his footlocker was stuffed full of guns and supplies enough to last him for a couple of weeks. His killing spree had already begun the night before: shortly after midnight, he had gone to visit his mother’s apartment building, where he had killed her immediately after entering the apartment by suffocating her with a rubber hose and then stabbing her and laying her body out neatly upon her bed. At around 2:30 a.m., he had returned to his own house, where he stabbed his sleeping wife five times, killing her instantly. (107) He had then spent the rest of the night and the early morning hours quietly packing the footlocker with food supplies, guns and ammunition for his ascent up the Tower.
The Tower itself is 307 feet tall (the Statue of Liberty, by comparison, is 305), with twenty-eight storeys. It was built between 1934 and 1937 upon the site where the ruins of the Old Main building had been razed, and designed initially as a library.
Whitman now paused at the elevator, which wasn’t working, and waited while the desk receptionist switched on the second elevator for him. At the twenty-seventh floor, he had to get out and drag the footlocker on its dolly up one final flight of steps to the twenty-eighth floor, where the desk receptionist, one Edna Townsley, would most likely have recognized him, since he had visited the top of the Tower on a couple of previous occasions. It was therefore necessary to kill her immediately, which he did by bashing in the back of her skull with the butt of a rifle. Then, while she lay squirming in agony on the floor, he dealt her skull another blow and dragged her body across the floor, leaving a visible trail of blood, to shove it behind the couch, where it would be out of view.
A couple happened to come in from the observation deck outside at just that moment: one Don Walden and Cheryl Botts, who saw him standing there with a rifle in each hand. Don nodded to him, saying, “Hello,” assuming that Whitman, perhaps, was up there to shoot pigeons, to which Whitman responded with, “Hi, how are you?” Cheryl noticed the dark stain on the floor, but wasn’t sure what it was, and the couple took the elevator down, wisely choosing not to ask Whitman any questions.
However, the family coming up the stairs at that moment was not so fortunate: Whitman had already barricaded the door with a desk he had shoved in front of it, but two teenage boys, Mark and Mike Gabour, running excitedly ahead of their family, pushed it open. Whitman shot them with a 12-guage sawed-off shotgun, immediately killing Mark, while Mike went tumbling backwards down the stairwell. Whitman fired at least three rounds after them, hitting Mary Gabour, their mother, in the head (she would survive) and killing the boys’ aunt, Marguerite Lamport, who was travelling with her husband William.
Whitman shut and barricaded the door once again, then moved his activities out onto the observation deck, where he placed the footlocker on the west side. The deck formed a square oriented to the four quarters, with each side about 50 feet long, forming a 200 foot perimeter. He shoved the dolly against the deck’s only entrance, a glass-paneled door on the south side. (140)
It was a hot day, so Whitman tied a white bandanna around his forehead to keep the perspiration out of his eyes, while he opened his footlocker and laid out his arsenal of guns on the red tiled floor of the observation deck. He assembled the 6mm Remington rifle with a 4 power scope, and then proceeded to the south side, where he worked the bolt and began looking for targets on the green of the courtyard down below, where students and professors were going about their business on a Monday morning.
His first target was a pregnant woman named Claire Wilson: Whitman, a crack shot, took aim at her belly and fired, killing the unborn child. Claire herself would survive the ordeal, but her boyfriend Thomas Eckman was not so lucky: Whitman fired a bullet into his back, just below the neck, killing him instantly.
The time was 11:48 a.m. All across the campus, bodies began to fall as popping sounds filled the air. For the next hour and a half, Whitman would race around the Tower, shooting at people from distances up to 500 yards away. Most of his kills occurred within the first twenty minutes, after which time, return fire from police and especially civilians with long-range rifles effectively pinned him down, so that he could no longer peer out over the parapet, but had to shoot through the observation deck’s rain gutters.
The ordeal came to an end when a group of police officers, aided by one civilian named Allen Crum, ascended the Tower and stormed the observation deck. Officers Houston McCoy and Ramiro Martinez snuck up on Whitman, who was sitting in the northwest corner, apparently awaiting their arrival, with his carbine across his knees. He was just in the process of raising the rifle to shoot back at them, when the officers shot him dead, at point blank range.
The time was 1:24 p.m.
Whitman, by then, had killed 13-17 people (depending on how you count: some of the victims would not die until years later from complications) and wounded over 45.
But he had done something far more damaging to American society: he had created a Prototypal Violence Event, the first spree killing ever to take place in a public space. It was a rare type of event that would leave a sort of scar on the very fabric of Time itself, inserting a new Violence Pattern that would function like an archetype which would go on resonating as the subsequent decades of American – and eventually, global – society would unfold with a series of chronotypical echoes of the originary Whitman Event. For each public shooting, from those which began in the American postal offices to the most recent school shootings of today, are but reenactments of the temporal resonance pattern inflicted by Whitman on the very structure of American society.
Searching for the causes of such Events can be tricky, and is an essentially metaphysical undertaking. We can glance first at Whitman’s background, where we will find, perhaps, a series of efficient causes leading up to the Event.
Whitman, for instance, came from a family in Lake Worth, Florida that was tyrannized over by an abusive, workaholic father, who was known to beat Whitman’s mother and his three sons, of whom Whitman was the oldest. When, as an eighteen year old, Whitman came home drunk one night, his father threw him into the swimming pool, nearly drowning him, and Whitman subsequently made the decision to enlist in the Marines. (He was taught to shoot, as a kid, by his father, who loved guns and always had them around, and not, as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket mistakenly remarks, by the Marines. He was already a crack shot by the time he enlisted, scoring 215 out of a possible 250 on sniper tests).
In the Marines, he did well for a time: he had a very high IQ and was capable of academic excellence when he applied himself, so the Marines put him on a scholarship to attend the University of Texas to study mechanical engineering. His grades at the university, however, weren’t too hot, and soon he met, and married his wife Kathy Leissner on August 17, 1962. His grades began to falter, though, and he had a tendency toward erratic forms of behavior such as a gambling addiction. He would get into fights and occasionally had run-ins with the law, such as when he poached a deer. And he had a tendency to acquire traffic tickets for reckless driving.
Eventually, the Marines, unhappy with his academic performance, withdrew the scholarship and kept him on active duty, stationing him back at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, much to his dismay. He was promoted to the rank of Lance Corporal, but soon found himself court-martialed in November of 1963, for gambling, illegal possession of a non-authorized firearm and for making threats on people who owed him money. His rank was reduced back to that of a private, and he wrote letters of frustration to his wife, who had continued to work on her studies back at the University of Texas. He hated the Marines and had to get his father’s help to get him an honorable discharge so that he wouldn’t have to fulfill his five year stint.
After the discharge, he returned to the University of Texas, where he changed his major to architectural engineering. Taking up residence with his wife once again, he got various jobs working as a debt collector for an insurance firm, a bank teller, etc. but he was not satisfied with any of these jobs and tended to quit them after only a few months. The nine to five lifestyle was not for him. He was a Scout Leader for the Boy Scouts for a time, but there were complaints from them of his mean-spirited practical jokes. Whitman, apparently, had little capacity for empathy.
In the spring of 1966, his parents’ marriage finally gave out, and his terrified mother, fearful that Whitman’s father would beat her to death, moved to Austin to be near him. She lived with the couple briefly, but then moved to her own apartment. The stress of his parents’ divorce, however, exacerbated all of Whitman’s other stresses: he was suffering from constant headaches and began popping pills, such as Dexedrine, which has the side effect of causing insomnia. Whitman was legendary amongst his friends for sleepless marathons: once he went five days without sleep, then repeated the feat again two days later. He was scribbling furiously in his diary all during this period – since the 1963 court martial, in fact – trying to understand what was happening to him and to his emotions, which he could not get a grip on.
During the spring of 1966, he went to see one Dr. Maurice Heatly, to whom he confessed a number of his problems, including how he saw his father as an overachiever and himself as being unable to achieve anything. He also confessed a fantasy to Dr. Heatly, who ignored it at the time, of going up to the top of the Tower with a deer rifle and shooting people. (71)
In the summer of 1966, as all these stresses began to surmount, he quit his studies at the University without finishing his degree and was considering leaving his wife and becoming a bum. His headaches were getting worse, and the pill popping expanded to include Dexamyl (which contains Dexedrine), Librium (to help him sleep) and Excedrin (which contains caffeine). (An autopsy conducted upon his body after the shootings would later find that he had a brain tumor).
Although he was only 25 years old at the time, Whitman, it seemed to himself, was running out of options. Apparently, at some point during that summer, he decided that the only way out was an Act of Violence.
And so, Whitman, in ascending the Tower, was essentially declaring war on society itself, on Lacan’s Big Other, precisely because, from the viewpoint of Lacanian theory, he had failed to integrate the paternal metaphor – trading out the infant’s “desire for the mother” and giving up being the Phallus for her, in acceding to the Name of the Father and his legislative authority – and so there was a gap in his symbolic universe, a gap which he tried to fill with an act of violence precisely because he could not play by the father’s socio-juridical rules.
Whitman, no matter how hard he tried, found it impossible to insert himself into any of the various institutions of the social order (i.e. the Big Other): he was a failed marine, a failed student, a failed husband, a failed nine to fiver, etc. etc: all of the social institutions, in other words, which create in the individual who successfully integrates himself into them a “we” feeling (to borrow from Bernard Stiegler). Whitman was never able to attain this “we” feeling in plugging into any of these social systems of transcendence: the “we” feeling which they create is precisely a form of transcendence that allows the individual to feel that he is part of a larger whole. Whitman did not feel a part of anything at all. He was never able to escape from the hell of being an isolated “I” by plugging into a social system of transcendence, such as the various institutions of marriage, church, university, etc. Whitman remained cut off, in a state of isolation, from all such systems, and so, in ascending the Tower, he tried to create his own artificial system of Transcendence.
But ascending the Tower was not a type of Transcendence that plugged him into any sort of a “we” feeling. Instead, it was designed, by virtue of its very height – and the fact that the Tower resembles a giant letter “I” – to magnify him out of all proportion to all the other “I’s” down on the green of the campus below, so that he could tower over them by attaining the grandeur of the mightiest “I” of them all. In transforming himself into the biggest “I” over all the other little “I’s” down below, Whitman essentially “deworlded” himself, to use a Heideggerian term, and put himself into the mode of Vorhandenheit: namely, a self-sufficient entity unplugged from all world horizons whatsoever. In such a role, one has command over all horizons precisely because one towers over them all.
Notice that, from his point of view three hundred feet up into the air, all the people down on the ground are “deworlded” as well, for they become quantitatively interchangeable units robbed of all subjectivity. One no longer has to interact with them on a face-to-face basis (a la Levinas) but precisely because they are now units, they can be deleted at will. Each unit is the same as every other, and from Whitman’s god-like perspective, none had any priority over any other. There are no subjectivities whatsoever from such a vantage point.
Thus, in failing to attain to the transcendence of a “we” by plugging himself into one or another of the Big Other’s social institutions, Whitman constructed for himself an artificial system of transcendence based upon elevation toward the heavens.
But now, a cross-sectional metaphysical analysis of Whitman’s situation in the Tower reveals a couple of interesting things: one is that, while aiming at people down on the ground below and shooting at them with his rifle, Whitman is essentially retrieving the Paleolithic motif of the hunter aiming at his prey with a spear launched from his atlatl. It is, of course, however, the Paleolithic hunter of the Upper Paleolithic in his role not as hunter of animals, but as an ethnocidal hunter of other humans, such as Neanderthals. This hunter-as-ethnocidal-human is a historical behavior pattern that I would term a “chronotype,” for it is a form of temporal-being-in-the-world. Such a chronotype is, however, not proper to a modern industrial society, where it has no place and serves no purpose.
However, Whitman’s Prototypal Violence Event – a total singularity without precedent – is also composed out of another chronotype, that, namely, of the priest’s ascent up the tower during the Bronze Age, where the elevated climb up the steps of a ziggurat, let’s say, gives him the ability to communicate with the gods. In such an ascent, one leaves the sphere of the soul behind and moves up into the realm of the powers of the Spirit, whereupon, after receiving their message, one descends, like Moses from Sinai, with some new type of revelation.
But the ancient symbolism of ascent was recoded during the phase of the Industrial Capitalist semiosphere when, during the nineteenth century, skyscrapers were erected by American engineers and architects, first in Chicago, and then in New York, where they took on a new and altogether different semiotic. Ascent, that is to say, on the inside of the capitalist world sphere means higher numbers: it is a giddyng, vertical ascent not toward the realm of Spirit, but toward higher and higher dollar amounts. Indeed, the higher you can scale in the realm of “high finance” the taller will your skyscraper be. Money makes these buildings grow, and their height is a signifier indicative of wealth and success under the world conditions of capitalism.
But, of course, such success, it is a truism to say, is alienating and also isolating. Even for the successful and the wealthy, money creates barriers to the integration into “we” systems of transcendence and instead, swaps them out for “I” systems of transcendence. This is why the buildings are shaped like the letter “I.” Capitalism, as Marx well knew, alienates and isolates individuals from their social fabric, producing isolated men at the top (Citzen Kane is a classic example), and isolated, lonely and disaffected individuals at the bottom, like Charles Whitman.
Thus, Whitman’s ascent in the Tower also illustrates his status as a socially isolated being, cut off from all horizontal social structures. It is not an ascent to the realm of the Spirit to commune with spiritual powers, but an ascent into the higher “I” world of capitalism where one can attain an artificial dominance over everyone else from one’s vantage point. Whitman’s point of view was simply a literal one designed as a sort of caricature of the capitalist ascent into the realm of high finance. But the end result, namely social isolation, is the same in both cases.
And so, the Prototypal Violence Event created by Whitman is a sort of compression of at least three chronotypes, or temporal patterns of human behavior: that of the Paleolithic hunter; that of the priestly ascent to the heavens; and that of the capitalist ascent into the “I” world of alienated individuals trapped in the realm of high finance, where they find themselves cut off from everyone else down below them (or else, horizontally alongside them).
The compression of these three Diagrams produces the singularity of a Violence Event as a new chronotype, a pattern of behavior that should not exist, because there are no precedents for it. Its existence has been made possible by an ontological shifting in the semiosphere, in which previously stable chronotypes have been destabilized and ruptured, set adrift and shifting around from each other like ice floes disturbed by a melting glacier. In such an age of ontological disruptions, new, bizarre and even archaic chronotypes are enabled to enter into the fabric of the social order, where they don’t belong but where the social immune system has failed to prevent their irruption, like a virus landing on a cell wall. These new chronotypes act as dangerous social disruptors establishing new patterns of anarchy and social breakdown that, once taken up by the society’s metabolism, are propagated just like the genes of a virus inside the cell’s machinery, which is forced to manufacture them as clones. In this case, the Violence Act is cloned, replicated and serialized through its reproduction in Time as a series of Violence Events which are played out over the decades through imitations of the original prototype.
Maximal Stress Zone
Notice, too, that Whitman’s position in the Tower transforms the zone around him for a five hundred yard radius in all directions into a Maximal Stress Zone (to borrow a term from Heiner Muhlmann). A Maximal Stress Zone is a zone of conflict and violence that risks human mortality and which is normally ejected by a society’s metabolism to the outside of its city walls. War is out there; we are safe in here. The interior is traditionally a zone of cooperation.
But Whitman’s Event has created a Maximal Stress Zone on the inside of American society, where it does not belong. It is a zone of hunting, violence and death that one would normally expect to find on a battlefield somewhere, but not in a social setting.
The intrusive nature of such an Event indicates that something has gone wrong in the social fabric, whose normal function is to keep such events beyond the pale. Some essential function in the social immune system has slipped, broken or been otherwise mangled such that it has allowed a gap to open up in the social imaginary in which displaced, archaic or bizarre chronotypes (that is, human patterns of temporal behavior) are allowed entrance.
Whitman’s act, in other words, is a function of the breakdown of society in his age. Such events do not occur in healthy societies, where the ontological conditions render them impossible precisely by making clear the definitions of such boundaries as “inside” and “outside.”
But in the age of the Cold War, when electronic surveillance technologies were on the rise, such distinctions between a social “interior” and a social “exterior” no longer apply, for electronic technology has the quality of saturating the entire spaces of a society, including the earth itself, with a field of pulse signals that render such distinctions obsolete. The Cold War is an age of Social Membrane Erosion: when U-2 spy planes are everywhere and satellites are sending pulse signals, while the atmosphere is full of radio and television signals, there are no boundaries. As a result, paranoia becomes the norm, and such acts as Whitman’s are allowed entry because there is no longer an ontology in place to keep them from happening.
But the really sinister thing is that, once such an Event is allowed to take place at all, it sets up an acoustic Resonance Effect in the temporal field that makes it very likely for the event to be repeated and copied, simply because a prototype now exists for it. In the ancient world, such Prototypal Events were often violent, but they usually had religious significance, such as the Crucifixion of Christ – which becomes the prototypal basis for its daily reenactment in the Mass – or the destruction of the Jewish Temple by the Romans in 70 AD, which is reenacted in the Jewish wedding custom of stepping on glasses and crushing them. Rituals in religion are chronotypes that temporally reenact primordial foundation events. Their continual echo across time serves as culturally mnemonic patterns that are handed down vertically through the generations and which enable such cultural traits to build entire civilizations.
But the problem with a singularity such as that of Whitman’s Violence Event is that it does just the opposite: it sets up a resonance pattern than is reenacted, not ritually, but physically across time, and which has the effect, therefore, not of building up a civilization, but of gradually tearing it down across the generations. The more often the act is repeated, the more socially damaging it becomes, and the more it acts like an enzyme for dissolving the culture in question out of existence.
Erasure of the Chonotype?
The individual is a product of his own psyche’s interaction with the social conditions of his time. He is never just “on his own,” but is always locked into a kind of reciprocity with the social structures that shape and condition him. Consequently, he may have a certain degree of “free will,” but if those social relations are in a state of breakdown, they will make possible the existence of erratic patterns of behavior that would otherwise never manifest themselves.
In other words, there is a reason why an act such as Whitman’s did not take place in, say, seventeenth century Paris; or eighteenth century Vienna, or indeed, even in the first few decades in the America of the twentieth century. The ontological conditions of post-WWII America have been disrupted enough to make such an Act possible in the first place. According to Levinas, “Ethics precedes ontology,” but in this case I would say that “ontology precedes violence.” Violent acts do not emerge in a vacuum, or merely from “psychotic people.” There are always ontological conditions that make their particular character possible in the first place.
This is not to absolve Whitman of responsibility for his actions, but it is a way of situating those actions within the changing evolutions – or devolutions – of ontological structures that are always in processual movement behind the scenes, as it were. The ontological shiftings are so hard to perceive precisely because of their invisibility.
But now we find ourselves living in the Age of the Spree Killer, who has become so common as to be almost a banality. It was an Age inaugurated by the Violence Event of Charles Whitman, who set up the ominous conditions for its precedent.
And because it is a function of shifting, or even broken down, ontologies, it is impossible to stop the recurrence of the Event by changing the gun laws, let’s say, or better educating people, or beefing up the Swat teams etc. etc. The only way to stop it is to perform a metaphysical act of Erasure, in which the chronotype itself that programs for the ongoing recurrence of the behavior pattern is found and erased.
But then, how does one erase a metaphysical pattern like a chronotype?
To take one example from the ancient world, such an act of metaphysical erasure was undertaken by the pharaoh Akhenaten, when he sent armies of men out across Egypt to erase the names of the gods, while he himself anathematized all the funerary deities and made worship of them illegal. In the process, he substituted and recoded the original metaphysical Patterns by overcoding them with new archetypes: the sun god Aton, the rejection of the sun’s night sea journey, the making heretical of funerary practices, etc. But the process of Erasure was only available to him because he had the infrastructure of an entire state apparatus, together with its war machine, at his disposal. And the Erasure was ultimately unsuccessful due to the collapse of his experiment at Akhetaten, followed by his death, and the resurgence of the Theban priesthood, who restored all the original metaphysical Patterns.
In today’s situation, such an act of metaphysical erasure could only take place through a complete decimation and restructuring of the socio-cultural system.
Which is another way of saying that we are stuck with the Pattern, i.e. the chronotype programming for this particular violence act, for the forseeable future, until some massive social restructuring takes place – a kind of rebooting of the system—that overcodes it with new metaphysical structures preventing the very existence of such a chronotype.
And we’re a long ways off from that.