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    World Focus: I'm amazed that US random killers are so rare
    Posted on Wednesday, October 09 @ 07:27:38 UTC
    Topic: World News
    World NewsBy David Aaronovitch, Independent UK

    On Monday 1 August 1966, while we English were still celebrating the weekend's 4-2 victory of our team over the Germans in the World Cup finals, a man called Charles Whitman climbed to the viewing platform of the tower at the University of Texas in the city of Austin. Dressed in overalls and equipped with a large number of guns, including one with telescopic sights, Whitman spent the next 96 minutes shooting and killing various citizens of Austin, his first bullet hitting a pregnant woman and destroying her child. His 13th official victim, David Gunby, died last year in Fort Worth from long-term complications arising from a bullet that he received in the back.

    Though he had killed his mother and wife earlier in the day, Whitman's shooting targets were chosen more or less at random – there was a professor, a peace corps volunteer, several students and an electrician. Nor did the murderer seem particular about the age or gender of his victims. Whitman proved himself – in that short period before he was gunned down by a policeman – to be an unusually democratic killer.

    At the time that I write this, over on the Maryland-Washington DC border, there is, apparently, another undiscriminating random killer at work. This murderer has shot eight people of all colours and ages, and killed six. His victims have died while tending to a lawn, cleaning the inside of a van or sitting on a bench. The latest, a 13-year-old boy, is in a critical condition after having been shot in the chest while on his way to school. As a New York Times editorial put it yesterday, "In some neighbourhoods, it's almost impossible to run a simple errand without feeling the crosshairs on your back."

    The same editorial points out that the killer might much more easily be traced were there a national database storing details of the ballistic "fingerprint" of each gun, along with information on the place and date of sale, and the owner. But such a database has been opposed by the gun lobby, and indeed Congress was just about to vote on a bill that would have removed any legal liability from makers and sellers of firearms, for any use to which their goods might be put. The New York Times remarks, sardonically, that this vote "has now been postponed till no one is looking".

    A database might help to find the killer, but it wouldn't stop him (or, I suppose, her) killing in the first place. And despite the Whitman case and the history of this kind of crime, the Washington shootings do provide yet more emotional material for those who see increasing social disintegration and alienation all around them. How easily (they feel) the protective layer of socialisation is sloughed off to reveal the base animal below. It is yet one more sign of the chaos that may be to come, its arrival accelerated by violent movies, selfishness and family breakdown.

    I do not willingly ride pillion with any of these three horsepersons of the modern Apocalypse. But, perversely, whenever a "gunman goes on the rampage" or a "swordsman runs amok", the thought that passes through my head is not how often this kind of thing happens, but how seldom. Millions of us squeeze together in cities, madden each other with our driving, our noise and our tendency to rush for the empty seats on the bus. And yet we hardly ever kill each other. And this is despite the fact that obliterating those who annoy us is one of the most constant and satisfying fantasies that we have. Just this morning I had my ears assaulted by a car and a van, both of whose occupants seemed to believe that an obstruction (caused by a reversing lorry) could be cleared by blowing a path through with their horns.

    In retaliation, I imagined firing a bazooka at both vehicles. What if I had a gun? In the first part of Tobias Wolff's autobiography, This Boy's Life, Wolff recalls being given a rifle as a present. A lonely boy, abused and bullied, he sat there at the window. "Hammer cocked, a round in the chamber, finger resting lightly on the trigger, I drew a bead on whoever walked by – women pushing strollers, children, garbage collectors laughing and calling to each other, anyone – and as they passed by my window I sometimes had to bite my lip to keep from laughing at the ecstasy of my power over them, and at their absurd and innocent belief that they were safe." In fact the temptation became too great and Wolff did once fire at an elderly couple who had taken too long to walk to the end of the street. He missed.

    You can feel the attraction of actually firing, and even so, it is incredibly rare. When the act passes from fantasy (where the vast majority of acts of any kind are committed) to reality, there is always a pathology, and in the case of random shooters it seems to be the same one. Charles Whitman, the Texas University killer, came from a wealthy family. He was a good student, a pianist and an Eagle Scout. Whitman's father was a self-made man, who denied his children very little in the way of material comforts. He also beat his wife and hit his sons, punching them or using his belt, when they failed to come up to his expectations. "With all three of my sons, it was 'yes, sir' and 'no, sir.' They minded me," said Mr Whitman senior after the killings, "I was raised as an orphan, and didn't have the advantages my boys did."

    A feature of Charles Whitman's journals, discovered after his death, was his constant battle with his sense of powerlessness. As with Wolff's nearly enacted fantasies, what he did was to visit total powerlessness upon others. Interestingly, Whitman never seems to have considered killing his tyrannical father, the man he was forced to "mind".

    That so many people must have such feelings, and yet so few actually behave in such a drastic way, is a cause, I think, for some celebration. It seems to prove that (in well-ordered societies at any rate) our natural sense of empathy – our understanding of the consequences of our actions for other human beings like ourselves – acts as a massive inhibitor.

    Wolff himself eventually shoots a squirrel with his rifle, and is appalled by what he has done. He is no sociopath.

    There are whole industries out there based on persuading us that, in fact, our fellow humans are a terrible and constant danger to us. Monday night saw the second instalment of ITV's latest Lynda LaPlante scream-and-stab mini-drama series, Trial and Retribution. If you thought for one moment that real life was like this, then you'd keep a Kalashnikov rifle beside the bidet, for that inevitable moment when the half-killed psycho-you-thought-was-a-nice-guy comes smashing his way through the locked bathroom door. It is extraordinary that so many of us regard this kind of stuff as entertainment, and it must surely feed the sense that we are all, always, somehow at hazard.

    It's strange that the real lesson of the Maryland murderer is actually that most of us, most of the time, are very safe with each other.

    David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

     
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    Meanwhile, across America, schools teach sniping (Score: 1)
    by lopez (lopez@spamproof.com) on Monday, October 14 @ 04:36:05 UTC
    (User Info )
    Washington: As the death toll in Washington grows, Americans are starting to question why training courses in sniping are widely available to civilians.

    At the Storm Mountain centre in West Virginia, applicants are invited to "face the challenges associated with high-risk environments or incidents". Its classes are said to "provide an excellent opportunity to the concerned citizen as well as the law enforcement, military or security professional".

    Three sniper courses are offered. The first, costing £ $US700 ($1275) for five days, gives basic training in the use of sniper rifles and help with ammunition selection, shooting positions, effects of weather and long-range shooting up to 800 metres.

    Sniper II, for the same price, introduces more advanced "tactical applications of cover and concealment, camouflage, individual movement, and stalking". Students take part in actual sniper exercises "which require co-ordinated fire on multiple targets, angle shooting and engaging moving targets".

    In Sniper III, for £ $US900 for those who have completed the first two courses, students take part in two "overnight missions", which culminate in a sniper task using live ammunition.

    Storm Mountain is one of a number of such schools across the US.

    Many people, however, now believe that the schools should be banned. "I think that what Storm Mountain and other similar schools do is bordering on the despicable," said Tom Diaz, a director of the Washington Violence Policy Centre, a gun control lobby group.

    Rodney Ryan, a former army sniper who runs the Storm Mountain centre, said: "This man is not a sniper. He is just a crazed gunman who is giving snipers a bad reputation."

    The Telegraph, London
    Reproduced from:
    http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2002/10/13/1034222682599.html




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