Excerpt, From a Taller Tower: The Rise of the American Mass Shooter:
The gunman at the parapet in Austin was certainly not the first mass murderer in American history, nor was this the first time a cold-blooded killer had massacred strangers. This wasn’t even the first mass slaying during the summer of 1966. Just nineteen days earlier, sometime after eleven p.m. on the night of July 13, a drunken and drug-addled merchant marine who had been raised in Texas by a criminal stepfather had slipped into a rooming house at 2319 East 100th Street in Chicago.
Over the course of the next eight hours, he strangled and stabbed (and in at least one case raped) eight student nurses one by one, until only one, who had hidden in terror beneath a bed, survived. For nearly three weeks the evening news and the pages of America’s newspapers were filled with the awful, lurid details of the murderous orgy. The killer’s name — Speck, a synonym for an insignificant mote of filth — would become a household word; his gaunt, pockmarked face would be as familiar to millions of Americans as any movie star’s or sports hero’s. Soon enough, within days really, this killer would be deposed as America’s worst nightmare, just as every mass killer since would be. The last to be killed by every mass killer is always the mass killer who came before.
But as shocking as the mass murder in the rooming house was, that killer was at least darkly familiar to us, in a perverse way. The news stories portrayed him as a figure drawn from our nightmares, a monster with tentacles that reached deep into our mythology. He looked like a monster; he had lived monstrously. All of our theology — sectarian and secular — is and always has been shot through with cautionary tales of such monsters acting on the most animalistic impulses. Monsters are by definition different from us, we tell ourselves. And because they’re different, for all the horror they inflict, they also do one great kindness. They absolve us of complicity. And sometimes we return the favor, granting mass murderers not just absolution but honor.
As far back as the colonial era, there have been gruesome mass killings. The slaying of the surviving members of the Susquehannock Indian tribe in revenge for the predations of Pontiac’s warriors during the French and Indian War, carried out by a murderous band of vigilante colonists who called themselves the Paxton Boys, is just one example.
The Paxton Boys were seen as heroes by some at the time. A hundred miles to the northeast of that stretch of Pennsylvania, along the banks of the Delaware River, there’s still a monument to the “Indian Fighter” Tom Quick. An old inn named for him still graces the treelined main street of Milford, Pennsylvania. It’s directly across the street from the courthouse where, two and a half centuries later, one of his spiritual descendants, another murderer who also portrayed himself as a warrior, would be tried for gunning down two state policemen in a sneak attack.
Among Quick’s glorious exploits was the murder of a mother and her three young children as they cowered together in the rushes along the river. “Nits make lice,” he is rumored to have said in defense of his act of infanticide. And that was good enough to earn him a minor place in the pantheon of American frontiersmen.
On other occasions we even romanticize the killings, turning brutal killers like Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker or the murderous machine gunners who executed seven members of Bugs Moran’s gang in a Chicago garage on February 14, 1929, into Hollywoodized icons. We continue to do so today, even as we meekly decry the gang and gun violence in Chicago and other American cities. Gun-toting gangsters are often still our go-to antiheroes. Even now it still hasn’t quite dawned on us that by mythologizing the first St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, we may have helped bring about the second St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the one on February 14, 2018, when a teen armed with a military-style rifle murdered seventeen people at a Florida high school and wounded seventeen more.
But on that first day of August 1966, the killer in Austin robbed us of those comforting myths. We could no longer pretend that the monsters didn’t look or act like us. We could no longer excuse them because they were killing somebody whom, unjust though it may have been, we officially sanctioned as an adversary. The atrocity committed in Austin that day was a turning point in our history. It was arguably the first truly modern mass public shooting, perpetrated by a killer who at first glance seems indistinguishable from those he killed. He committed murder on a grand scale, not to advance some perverse but comprehensible criminal enterprise or in obvious service to some equally perverse imagined cause, but instead for no discernible reason. It was the first in a seemingly endless series of senseless mass shootings whose frequency has risen and fallen over the decades but that now seem to be happening more often and with far higher death tolls. The Tower murders would demand that we concoct new myths to explain the killing. And we would oblige. But even those new myths, in the end, would always be swallowed by the silence.
The silence between gunshots, that deafening and deadly silence, is as deep as ever. But it no longer lasts very long at all.