My office was on the 21st floor, though the rest of the computer science department was in a building nearby. On my first day on the job, a secretary called me over as I was leaving the department for the 21st.
“You’ll think of him,” she said in a quiet voice. “Everyone does.”
“Who?” I asked, wondering if the CS department had ghosts I didn’t know about.
She looked at me strangely. “Whitman, of course!”
I nodded, but I didn’t fully understand till a few minutes later: Charles Whitman, she meant. On August 1, 1966, this once-Marine climbed to the observation deck on the 28th floor of the same tower I was heading for: the “Main Building” of the University of Texas in Austin. Early that morning, Whitman had already killed his mother and wife. Now he carried several guns into the tower. He settled, took aim and began shooting. Fourteen dead and 32 wounded people later, a police officer finally stopped the massacre, shooting Whitman dead.
Up in my 21st floor office, I looked out of the window onto a panoramic view of the campus. On the paths below, dozens of students scurried about. For a trained Marine like Whitman, picking them off one at a time must have been easy. When I looked out and down that morning, I couldn’t help thinking of Whitman sitting a few floors above, seeing more or less what I was seeing, aiming and pulling his trigger. Again. And again. And again.
I spent 18 months in that office, working for the University of Texas Computer Science department. Not a day passed that I didn’t think of Whitman. That I didn’t wonder: why would a man kill like that? What might have stopped him?
There have been massacres in that country forever; just two weeks before Whitman, in fact, Richard Speck tortured and killed eight nurses in one night in a Chicago dormitory. Whitman’s, though, was one of the first widely reported mass shootings in the US. By the count of his victims, it remained the worst such shooting for over 40 years – until Seung-Hi Cho killed 32 and wounded 17 on the campus of Virginia Tech in April 2007. But there have been plenty of others, searing such names as Columbine, Aurora, Sandy Hook, Charleston and Santa Barbara into a nation’s consciousness.
Add one more name, from October 1: In Roseburg, Oregon, a gunman shot dead nine people before he was himself shot dead by the police.
Facts about this carnage are familiar to the point of being stultifying. I’ll repeat just one: Gun violence has killed over twice as many Americans in 2015 alone (8,512) than terrorism has since 1970 (3,521).
A frustrated president
Yet efforts at any kind of gun control have consistently floundered, and Barack Obama counts this as his greatest failure as President. Speaking after the Oregon massacre, he was visibly frustrated, angry and sad:
“Our thoughts and prayers are not enough … Somehow this has become routine. The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine … We have become numb to this … We are the only advanced country on Earth that sees these kinds of mass shootings every few months.”
Indeed. His country will go through a paroxysm of hand-wringing, typified by Adam Gopnik in theNew Yorker after the December 2012 Sandy Hook massacre: “Those who oppose [gun control] have made a moral choice: that they would rather have gun massacres of children continue rather than surrender whatever idea of freedom or pleasure they find wrapped up in owning guns or seeing guns owned.” Then the next bigoted murderer will kill the next lot of unsuspecting Americans, and the merry-go-round will go round again.
It is clearly a moral choice, and those who make it tell us as clearly how twisted their sense of morality has become.
Before we Indians look superciliously at that country, let’s be as clear about morals that are getting slippery here. Take only all that we have heard after a mob in Dadri lynched a man because they thought he had eaten beef. Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma called it an “accident”. One Nawab Singh Nagar of the Bharatiya Janata Party said, “If anybody was consuming beef then that is wrong”, and the killers were “innocent kids”. One Shrichand Sharma, also of the BJP, asked: “Whose blood won’t boil if they see cow slaughter?” And BJP Member of Parliament Tarun Vijay wrote an absurdcolumn with, among others, this grand-sounding yet putrid comment: “Lynching a person merely on suspicion is absolutely wrong.”
Tell us, Tarun Vijay: if it wasn’t “merely” a suspicion, if the man had in fact eaten that beef, then lynching him would be OK?
All those who dream up smarmy lily-livered excuses for the Dadri murder have made a moral choice. They would rather see ever more murders of innocent Indians than question perverted ideas of what rights are, of what is sacred.
But they should remember that not everyone has made that same moral choice. They will call these perversions for what they are. They will fight tooth-and-nail for an India that recognises and shuns these hypocrisies and slippery morals.
For just as the US belongs to Whitman’s victims and those who mourn blood shed by senseless gun violence, this country belongs to Mohammed Akhlaq and those who mourn blood shed by hatreds and bigotry. This country belongs to the millions of Indians who know that without a moral core, there is no India.