SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW

Las Vegas may now be home to America’s worst recent mass shooting – with 50 dead at the time of writing; but, to be brutally honest, having written about numerous massacres in the US since this blog began almost two years ago, it’s frankly quite difficult to come up with anything new to say on the subject. Such atrocities seem so endemic to the country that avoiding repeating past conclusions feels like an impossible task. Indeed, what else can really be said other than it’s bloody horrible? From everything I’ve so far heard, this one sounds less in tune with the current wave of Islamic terrorism and more reminiscent of the first such incident of this nature in modern times, that of Charles Whitman in 1966; the ex-Marine positioned himself in the clock tower on campus at Texas State University and opened seemingly indiscriminate fire on anyone in sight, eventually killing 15 people – including an unborn child – before being shot dead by police.

Anyone who has seen Peter Bogdanovich’s low-budget 1968 thriller, ‘Targets’, and is familiar with the Whitman case, will recognise the influence this true-life horror had on the movie. In the film, the unlikely assassin is a clean-cut all-American boy whose military experience in Vietnam has clearly left an unwelcome legacy; he shoots dead his wife and mother (as Whitman did) and then opens fire randomly on anyone who gets in his way before finally setting up base at a drive-in cinema. As the movie features one of the last on-screen appearances of Boris Karloff, the horror legend becomes the focus of the narrative, making an in-person appearance at the drive-in before one of his old pictures is screened. As soon as the projector begins to roll, the shooting spree kicks-off.

‘Targets’ may have been shot on a shoestring, but as with the bigger-budget portrayal of the Boston Strangler by Tony Curtis the same year, it marked a significant turning point in the horror genre; after decades of horror movies being dominated by supernatural or fantastical half-human creatures, the villain of the piece is suddenly the Ordinary Joe or the Boy-Next-Door, which is infinitely more unsettling on account of him being the kind of character we could easily meet on the street. ‘Targets’ is also an early cinematic document of the psychological damage done by warfare, specifically America’s sojourn in South East Asia; coinciding with Walter Cronkite’s game-changing opinion that the US could never win that particular war – crucial in turning popular opinion away from the more gung-ho view of American involvement in Vietnam – ‘Targets’ was, in retrospect, quite a pivotal movie in the way Hollywood chose to terrify its audiences.

Denied the funds to purchase literary rights, screenwriters and directors of low-budget movies have regularly scanned newspaper headlines for source material, but the Whitman case was such a major story that parallels between it and ‘Targets’ would have been obvious to anyone in the States at the time; indeed, more people knew of events at the University of Texas than saw the fictional adaptation of it. Although their President had been assassinated three years previously, the American people were not accustomed to random members of the public being gunned down as opposed to world leaders; after all, Kennedy was the fourth US President to have had his presidency curtailed by the bullet. But targeting people not holding high office and therefore not regarded as potential targets for a gunman – in 1966, this was something new.

Bizarrely, the last recorded fatality of Whitman’s spree came in 2001, when a survivor of the attack finally died of injuries sustained during the shooting. The victim in question, David Gunby, only had one functioning kidney when one of Whitman’s bullets hit the kidney still in full working order; in pain for the remaining 35 years of his life, when Gunby died the cause of death given was homicide. As is so often the case, Whitman didn’t answer for his crimes, but was himself shot dead by police on the day he opened fire. At the time of his death, Charles Whitman was just 25; he’d been a student at the University of Texas after joining the Marines straight from school, though the loss of his scholarship while he struggled with a gambling habit coupled with a tumour posthumously located on his brain is regarded by many as the cause of his sudden lurch into mass murder.

What’s most surprising about the man responsible for last night’s massacre in Las Vegas is that he was apparently as old as 64; one would have imagined any such instincts might have surfaced far earlier in life, as usually appears to be the case. The gunman this time round was local resident Stephen Paddock; where Whitman picked the observation deck of the prominent campus clock tower on the University of Texas, Paddock chose a room on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel, giving him a panoramic view of the site where the C&W music festival he targeted was being held.

Holed-up a safe distance from the location, it seems Paddock casually picked-off his victims at his leisure; along with the 50 fatalities confirmed, a further 200 were injured, highlighting once again how large numbers gathering in one place are extremely vulnerable to the home-grown lone wolf as much as they are to the coordinated group shouting ‘Allahu Akbar!’; and in a corner of America where the gun laws are lax, even by the insane standards of a country where the right to bear arms is sacrosanct, it’s a wonder Vegas hasn’t played host to this kind of carnage before. But even in the mass shooting game, it seems there’s a first time for everything.

© The Editor