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Assigning Blame for Aurora

Assigning Blame for Aurora

By Carl M. Cannon - July 23, 2012

At 9:30 a.m. on Sept. 6, 1949, a reclusive World War II combat veteran named Howard Barton Unruh ate a breakfast of Post Toasties and fried eggs, left his mother’s apartment wearing slacks and a bow tie, picked up his 9 mm Luger, and walked from shop to shop on River Road in East Camden, N.J., where he started shooting people.

Some victims were on a list Unruh had been preparing for months. Others were bystanders he’d never met, including three small boys under the ages of 10 -- one of whom was shot point-blank while sitting in a barber shop getting a haircut. By the time Unruh was apprehended, he’d murdered 13 people.

Like James Eagan Holmes outside a bloodied movie theater Thursday night in Aurora, Colo., Howard Unruh surrendered without a fight. But why did he do it in the first place? That’s what everyone wants to know after such rampages. We also want to know what, as a society, we’re supposed to do about it.

Americans are hit with conflicting impulses when confronted by the massacre of innocents. On one hand, we simply want to pray for the victims, hold our family members a little tighter -- and put politics aside. Yet the immediate aftermath is also the obvious time to discuss -- and perhaps act upon -- the public policy implications of these devastating events.

Leaving aside the unseemly impulse among some in the media to scapegoat the Tea Party or other conservatives, a legitimate question that arises is whether the spiteful nature of our national discourse contributes to a climate of violence.

Mental health professionals renew calls for public funding of programs to diagnose and treat those with mental illness. Liberals usually advocate, as they have this time, strengthening gun control laws. Some conservatives prefer to concentrate their opprobrium on the glorification of casual violence in the media -- not that there is anything casual about the mayhem in moviemaker Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” Batman series.

These days, once a discussion enters the political sphere, rationality and equanimity tend to go out the window. But we probably owe the victims more than that. We certainly owe it to future generations.

For starters, it’s important to note that this particular kind of horror is not new. We tend to think of mass murderers who embark on a senseless rampage shooting people at random as a recent phenomenon, but they aren’t. The litany of place names we recall easily rolls off the tongue: Luby’s Restaurant in Killeen, Tex., Columbine High School, Fort Hood, Virginia Tech, Tucson, and now the Century 16 multiplex in the Aurora Mall in suburban Denver.

But earlier generations of Americans had their Auroras, too.

-- On Aug. 13, 1903, a 30-year-old veteran of the Spanish-American War named Gilbert Twigg opened fire with a .12-gauge shotgun on a crowd at an outdoor concern in the county of his birth. Twigg killed nine people in Winfield, Kan., and wounded many more before turning a revolver on himself. This bloodbath earned only five paragraphs in the New York Times.

-- In 1948, 10 months before Howard Unruh lost it, an ex-con named Melvin Collins got in a squabble with bookmaker in front of a Chester, Pa. boardinghouse, shot the man dead and then barricaded himself in his second-floor room, shooting people at random with hollow-point bullets fired from a .22 rifle. He wounded four people, and killed eight, including himself.

-- On Aug. 1, 1966, only two weeks after Richard Speck raped, tortured and murdered eight student nurses in Chicago, University of Texas student Charles Joseph Whitman killed his wife and mother, then carted a footlocker full of weapons and ammo to the university tower in Austin and began shooting. By the time the former Eagle Scout and U.S. Marine was killed by policemen, 15 other people were dead and another 30 wounded.

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

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