American Historical Association Panel

Last week I received a draft from my co-panelist Steve Mintz for a session at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association. Wow that guy is organized, so now I’ve got to get cracking on my presentation! The theme of the panel is

“Secure … for Whom? Campus Violence in Historical Perspective, from the Bell Tower to Blacksburg”

Some thoughts on Steve’s draft:

1. He discusses the bell tower shootings by Charles Whitman at University of Texas, Austin in 1966. Steve prefaces this with a discussion of Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate and says these murders “were not disseminated through a sensationalized media, nor were they viewed as cultural symptoms.” This claim seems at odds with the historical record — Starkweather was compared with, and even cultivated, the image of James Dean in “Rebel without a Cause,” and described as a symbol of postwar youth out of control. They later went on to inspire a number of popular culture representations of youth murder and anomie, including the films “Badlands” and “Natural Born Killers.” I would agree that Whitman’s shooting was portrayed “as a shocking symbol of the social disintegration of the 1960s” but this was not new. One sees the same themes in discussions of Starkweather and Fugate, as well as the Leopold and Loeb trial in the 1920s.

2. Steve argues that “rampage killings challenge popular conceptions of mental illness.” On the contrary, I think they reinforce misconceptions about mentally ill individuals as prone to violence. [see excellent article on media coverage of Virginia Tech shootings by Otto Wahl].

3. warning signs — only became available after the shootings. Should these have been released? Patient rights to privacy being debated in mid-1960s, largely in response to criticisms of college psychiatry by Thomas Szasz as well as revolt against “institutionalized paternalism” by students.

4. describes Whitman as “superfically normal” — seems to reinforce notion of mentally ill as a different species from the rest of humanity. What is normal exactly? Who decides? Description of Whitman parallels that of Leopold and Loeb — i.e. precocious but unstable, brain abnormalities, etc.

5. mentions misogyny/harassment of women — this was true of Cho as well.

6. Overall, theme of security is aimed at victims and survivors — what about security for those who share diagnosis with the killer? Should they be labeled as “threats”?

For my paper, I may start with Szasz’ critique of college psychiatry since it was published shortly after the Texas shootings.

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