Democracy Dies in Darkness


At the University of Texas, a mass stabbing revives memories of tower sniper Charles Whitman

By Michael S. Rosenwald

May 1, 2017 at 7:54 PM

Smoke rises from Charles Whitman’s gun as he fires from the tower of the University of Texas. (AP)

They said he was calm.

They said the victims were walking one minute, bleeding the next.

A half-century ago at the University of Texas at Austin, the calm killer was Charles Whitman, a loner, ex-Marine sharpshooter who killed from his perch atop the clock tower.

The 90-minute attack, which left 17 dead and more than 30 wounded, ushered in the modern era of mass shootings, campus rampages and school killers.

Related: [The loaded legacy of the UT Tower shooting]

On Monday, the memory of that day was inescapable as a calm killer wielded a knife on campus, stabbing four and killing one. Police identified him as Kendrex J. White.

"It was described to us that the individual calmly walked around the plaza," the university police chief told reporters, "and basically attacked these four unfortunate students."

Watch more!
It’s been 50 years since shots rang out across the University of Texas at Austin. Here’s how the shooting unfolded and why it set a precedent on gun violence in America. (Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

In both acts of evil, the news of the attacks spread across campus quickly.

On Aug. 1, 1966, it was by radio.

One of Charles Whitman’s victims is placed in an ambulance. (AP)

"It's like a battle scene," newsman Neal Spelce said on the air, ducking bullets. "There's a shot, and another shot, and another shot."

On Monday, it was through social media.

Then and now, the victims seemed chosen at random. Wrong route between classes. Wrong time to head to the library.

Related: [‘I just laid down by the grave’: A mother mourns the UT Tower shooting’s tiniest victim]

UT's president, Greg Fenves, said, "We all mourn today."

The wounds, he knows, will linger.

Last August, at a memorial service to remember Whitman's victims, Fenves said, "There will never be relief from the pain and the scars."

Read more Retropolis:

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"Great God, he is alive!" The first man executed by electric chair died slower than Thomas Edison expected.

'Burn, baby, burn': What I saw as a black journalist covering the L.A. riots 25 years ago

Hunting down runaway slaves: The cruel ads of Andrew Jackson and 'the master class'

Michael Rosenwald is a reporter on The Washington Post's local enterprise team. He writes about the intersection of technology, business and culture.

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