Was he "mentally ill?" By most reckonings, the modern history of mass shootings starts on August 1, 1966.
This history starts with Charles Whitman, a 25-year-old engineering student at the University of Texas. Whitman stabbed his mother and his wife to death, then shot and killed thirteen people from the observation deck of that university's Main Building tower.
Eventually, Whitman was shot and killed that day by an Austin policeman. The modern history of mass shootings essentially starts with his astonishing acts.
Was Whitman suffering from some form of "mental illness?" The leading authority on these events offers this capsule account:
In the months prior to the attack, Whitman had sought professional help for "overwhelming, violent impulses," including fantasies about shooting people from the tower. An autopsy conducted after his death revealed a hypothalamic tumor.Governor Connally commissioned a task force to study these astounding events, which seemed especially shocking due to the lack of recent precedent. In part, these judgments were offered in the commission's report:
Psychiatric contributors to the report concluded that "the relationship between the brain tumor and [...] Whitman's actions [...] cannot be established with clarity. However, the [...] tumor conceivably could have contributed to his inability to control his emotions and actions," while the neurologists and neuropathologists concluded: "The application of existing knowledge of organic brain function does not enable us to explain the actions of Whitman on August first."Why did Whitman do what he did? Beyond that, what explains the disturbing ideation for which he sought professional help in the months before his disastrous actions?
Forensic investigators have theorized that the tumor pressed against Whitman's amygdala, a part of the brain related to anxiety and fight-or-flight responses.
We can't answer those questions. Meanwhile, how about another pair of questions:
Had Whitman been suffering from some form of "mental illness?" Would catastrophic effects of a tumor be categorized in that way?
We can't answer those questions either. That said, a more clairvoyant professional screening might imaginably have spared Whitman, and his fifteen victims, from his subsequent conduct.
This speculation leads us to Donald J. Trump's latest manifesto. The presentation was offered on Monday, when the president offered these somewhat selective proposals in response to our recent mass shootings:
TRUMP (8/5/19): First, we must do a better job of identifying and acting on early warning signs. I am directing the Department of Justice to work in partisan—partnership with local, state, and federal agencies, as well as social media companies, to develop tools that can detect mass shooters before they strike.As presented, several of these proposals would seem to make perfect sense. For example, should people "judged to pose a grave risk to public safety" have access to firearms?
Second, we must stop the glorification of violence in our society. This includes the gruesome and grisly video games that are now commonplace. It is too easy today for troubled youth to surround themselves with a culture that celebrates violence. We must stop or substantially reduce this, and it has to begin immediately. Cultural change is hard, but each of us can choose to build a culture that celebrates the inherent worth and dignity of every human life. That’s what we have to do.
Third, we must reform our mental health laws to better identify mentally disturbed individuals who may commit acts of violence and make sure those people not only get treatment, but, when necessary, involuntary confinement. Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun.
Fourth, we must make sure that those judged to pose a grave risk to public safety do not have access to firearms, and that, if they do, those firearms can be taken through rapid due process. That is why I have called for red flag laws, also known as extreme risk protection orders.
Today, I am also directing the Department of Justice to propose legislation ensuring that those who commit hate crimes and mass murders face the death penalty, and that this capital punishment be delivered quickly, decisively, and without years of needless delay.
These are just a few of the areas of cooperation that we can pursue...
Proponents of gun control have always said they shouldn't. Trump's public statements concerning such matters are often written in disappearing ink. But in that passage, he seemed to be saying that dangerous people should be forbidden access to guns.
On their face, several of Trump's proposals seemed to make perfect sense. That said, these are highly tribal times, and at highly tribal times, tribal minds may function poorly across the political spectrum.
If Trump makes a proposal, anti-Trump tribal players may reflexively oppose it, even where the proposal in question may make perfect sense. It seems to us that this has been happening in the general area of mental illness.
Many mass shooters, from Whitman on, have seemed to be struggling with something resembling mental illness. But over here in the anti-Trump world, anti-Trumpers have risen in opposition to the president's remarks in this general area.
Two days ago, we described a remarkable news report in the Washington Post. Concerning the general phenomenon of mass shootings, the news report ran beneath this remarkable headline:
Studies: Mental illness isn’t to blame
A wide range of mass shooters, from Whitman on, have seemed to be struggling with syndromes resembling some form of "mental illness." But now the Post seemed to be saying that any such thought or speculation was pure silly-bill bunk.
We authored a shocking claim at that time. Our shocking claim went like this:
"Now that Trump has said that illness does play a role, [anti-Trump] tribals will be strongly inclined to say that it doesn't."
Is it possible that our human thinking could be so hopelessly tribal, even over here, within our own liberal tribe? Tomorrow, we'll show you what Rachel Maddow and Connie Schultz said about mental illness that very same night—and we'll review this new opinion piece in today's Washington Post.
Donald J. Trump strikes us as deeply disordered. His reactions and presentations rarely make rational sense.
Alas! Especially at times like these, we liberals may tilt in such directions too. Because "it's all anthropology now," we'll try to show you how that syndrome works when we continue tomorrow.
Tomorrow: If he says it, does that mean it's wrong?