The Bizarre Case of Charles Whitman
How the Murder of 13 People Gave Rise to a New (and Ancient) Way of Looking at the Universe
In August 1966, after killing his mother and wife, Charles Whitman climbed the tower at the University of Texas and began shooting with a hunting rifle. In all, he killed 13 people and injured over 30. Here is an account by the neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky:
Whitman was literally an Eagle Scout and a childhood choirboy, a happily married engineering major with an IQ in the 99th percentile. In the prior year he had seen doctors, complaining of severe headaches and violent impulses (e.g., to shoot people from the campus tower). He left notes by the bodies of his wife and his mother, proclaiming love and puzzlement at his actions: “I cannot rationally pinpoint any specific reason for killing her,” and “let there be no doubt in your mind that I loved this woman with all my heart.” His suicide note requested an autopsy of his brain, and that any money he had be given to a mental health foundation. The autopsy proved his intuition correct — Whitman had a glioblastoma tumor pressing on his amygdala.
The amygdala is the part of the brain most responsible for aggression. Experts disagree on the role of the malignant tumor in influencing Whitman’s actions. There were other factors in Whitman’s life that could have influenced his behavior or interacted with the tumor. Whitman, because he was killed at the scene, never had to face a criminal judgment.
Challenging Our Thinking
In the time since this incident, the story of Charles Whitman and thought experiments derived from it, have challenged our conceptions of moral responsibility and free will. Let us suppose that rather than being killed, Whitman was captured. Let us further suppose that it was definitively proven that Whitman’s actions were caused by the tumor. Finally, let us suppose that Whitman subsequently underwent surgery that removed the malignancy and that after the surgery psychological testing determined that Whitman had no violent or antisocial impulses at all. That is, he was returned to his former state in which he was a loving husband and son and a responsible member of the community. Would we feel justified…