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Gary M. Lavergne: The Las Vegas shooting rampage resembles the University of Texas tower tragedy

Both shooters shot from elevated positions to inflict massive harm and remind Americans just how vulnerable we are to violence, writes Lavergne

Editor’s Note: Gary M. Lavergne is the author of four books, including “A Sniper in the Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders,” which tells the story of the University of Texas tower tragedy of 1966. His website is: www.garylavergne.com. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN) —  

On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman ascended the iconic University of Texas tower and in 96 minutes fired 150 rounds from a number of weapons upon an unsuspecting public. The sniper’s rampage left 16 people dead and more than 30 wounded. Whitman was eventually ambushed and killed by police officers.

As a country, America had never seen such a public display of killing.

Since then, we’ve witnessed too many mass shootings. But whenever mass shootings like Sunday’s Las Vegas rampage happen, I am reminded of the UT tower tragedy of 1966 and just how vulnerable we have been for some time now.

There are a lot of troubled people out there, and they know exactly how to prey on our worst fears and make them a reality. And when it’s all over, they make a name for themselves because we gave them what they wanted – infamy and the attention they couldn’t get for themselves at school or in the workplace.

Gary M. Lavergne
Gary M. Lavergne

It is easy to draw parallels between the incidents in Austin in 1966 and Las Vegas in 2017. Both shooters shot from elevated positions to inflict maximum casualties. They did not appear to know any of the individuals they were killing below, and their only real concern was the murder of as many people as possible. In the end, the shooting only stopped when the shooters were killed, or in the case of Las Vegas, when the shooter killed himself.

Unlike the Las Vegas shooter, the tower sniper selected his victims – one at a time. For most, he looked at them before he gunned them down. He was aware of how he would go down in history as quite a marksman, and he seemed determined to demonstrate that. The Las Vegas shooter, from an even higher vantage point, sprayed rounds from an automatic weapon into a crowd of thousands of concertgoers and could hardly have missed hitting many.

In both cases, we want to believe there is an explanation for this kind of cruelty. Merely saying someone is “evil” seems utterly unenlightened and inexact, and it doesn’t provide much closure. But we should acknowledge the capacity that some people have to do evil things.

A Whitman victim is carried across the campus to a waiting ambulance in Austin.
A Whitman victim is carried across the campus to a waiting ambulance in Austin.

And Whitman certainly had that capacity. While the opinion of those who knew Whitman varied greatly – some referred to him as an “All-American boy,” others considered him an abusive bully – he was raised in a culture of abuse. His father saw nothing odd about mixing love and violence: “Yeah, I [beat my wife] but I loved her,” the father once said.

Whitman became a frustrated young man, failing at nearly everything he tried, including being a student, a Marine and a faithful and dutiful husband. He decided he wanted to die, but die doing the only thing he could do better than almost everyone else – shoot a gun.

As decent people, we would rather not believe that creatures such as Whitman exist, but they do. And so, as decent people, we search for whatever it is that turns seemingly normal people into these murderous monsters.

Tower Building on the campus of the University of Texas
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images/FILE
Tower Building on the campus of the University of Texas

For Whitman, the possibilities abound: child abuse, the organic causes of violence (he was purported to have a brain tumor), the chemical causes of violence (amphetamine abuse), and military indoctrination, on top of personal, financial, marital and academic problems. But the truth is, thousands of people face challenges far greater than Whitman did in 1966, and they don’t kill dozens of innocent people.

On that tragic day in 1966, we were confronted with the reality that it was easily possible for a civilian to enter a public place and be better armed than the police department of a mid-sized city.

Back then, many police officers wore finely-polished dress shoes with soft, slippery leather soles. Today, it is hard to imagine police officers with no communications gear, bulletproof vests, body cams or training in the tactical response to an active shooter.

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The truly frightening part is that we don’t know who these evil people are. Often, we are surprised when their identities are revealed. That was true of the tower sniper and first reports are that it is likely true of the Las Vegas shooter.

In the coming weeks, we are likely to engage in another round of attaching causes we care deeply about, like gun control, mental health access, injustices of all kinds and poor parenting, to this tragic event. Liberals will blame conservatives, and conservatives will blame liberals.

But, in the end, we will still not know why these people do these evil things – only that we remain vulnerable to these kinds of attacks.