Assigning Blame for Aurora

By Carl M. Cannon - July 23, 2012

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-- Eighteen summers later, the nation’s attention was on California as San Francisco Democrats were nominating a presidential candidate and Los Angeles was putting the final touches on the 1984 summer Olympic Games. But even further south, in the San Diego County border town of San Ysidro, unemployed security guard James Oliver Huberty took an Uzi, a shotgun, and a pistol into a McDonald’s and methodically began killing everyone he could.

When a police sniper stopped him 77 minutes later, 21 people were dead and 19 were wounded. Eleven of the dead were children or teenagers.

There is something intrinsically unsatisfying about blaming a dead man for causing such suffering, but even when such murderous madmen are captured, their unaffected demeanors leave little for sane human beings to grab onto.

“What’s the matter with you,” one of the angry arresting officers shouted at 28-year-old Howard Unruh. “You a psycho?”

Unruh replied that he had “a good mind,” but he was as hard-pressed to explain what he’d done as anyone else was. Unruh had stopped shooting only when he ran out of ammunition, and was back at his apartment, apparently to get more, when the cops closed in. Moments earlier, he fielded a telephone call from local newspaperman named Philip Buxton, who’d dialed the apartment on a hunch.

“Why are you killing people?” Buxton asked.

“I don’t know,” Unruh replied. “I can’t answer that yet.”

Charles Whitman seems to have been perplexed by his own deteriorating mental condition. After killing his mother, he went home and stabbed his wife, Kathy, to death in her sleep. “I love her dearly, and she has been as fine a wife to me as any man could hope to have, ” he said in a type-written note. “I cannot rationally pinpoint any specific reason for doing this.”

He also asked in his suicide note that his brain be studied after his death: He suspected something had changed in the physical makeup inside his skull. “I don’t really understand myself these days,” he wrote. “I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I can’t recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts.”

The authorities wanted answers, too. Whitman, who was only 25 years old, had been an Eagle Scout and was highly intelligent before he snapped. What the medical examiner found was a tumor in an area of the brain that regulates both fear and aggression.

Most people understand that extreme mental illness is not something that can be controlled. Within a day of Gilbert Twigg’s rampage in Kansas in 1903, the local newspaper wrote, with impressive empathy:

“Poor Twigg was not responsible for his insane acts. His disordered mind led him to the conclusion that the whole world was against him and he came back to the home of his boyhood to wreak vengeance and end it all.”

Like Unruh and Huberty, Twigg cast blame for his crimes on his fellow citizens -- alluding to a succession of slights and rejections that constituted obvious evidence of paranoia. In a rambling, incoherent letter he left behind for the world to see, Twigg wrote on the day before his rampage 109 years ago, “I do not and most likely never will know the real cause of being treated in the manner in which I have been treated.”

If the killers blame society, some members of society blame the killers’ families. Howard Unruh had threatened his mother with a wrench the morning of his rampage, and she left her own house in fear -- but never thought to notify authorities.

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Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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