The modern era of mass shootings began 50 years ago this month when 25-year-old Charles Whitman opened fire atop the University of Texas Tower in Austin, killing 14 people and wounding 32 others before he was shot dead by police.

In a suicide note penned the night before the massacre, Whitman confessed that he was “unable to pinpoint any rational reason” for his impending murder spree. But he added that he had been plagued by “some tremendous headaches” as well as “many unusual and irrational thoughts.”

“After my death,’ he wrote, “I wish that an autopsy would be performed on me to see if there is any visible physical disorder.”

Whitman got his final wish, and his hunch proved prescient: Pathologists who autopsied the deceased killer discovered that a walnut-sized tumor had sprouted in a region of his brain associated with emotional regulation and aggression.

A panel of medical experts convened by Texas Gov. John Connolly later that year said the autopsy results suggested cautiously that Whitman’s tumor, called a glioblastoma, “could have contributed to his inability to control his actions and emotions.” Neurological research conducted in the half century since has largely buttressed their hypothesis.

Losing the scent

I first read about Whitman’s tumor in “The Brain on Trial,” a 2011 essay in which neuroscientist David Eagleman marshaled the accumulating evidence that similar neurological deficits may be implicated in a wide range of violent attacks and sexual crimes.

Earlier this summer, after the shootings that left five Dallas police officers and 10 times as many Orlando nightclub patrons dead, I called Eagleman to ask if brain deficits or deformities might not be the common denominator in those and other mass murders popularly attributed to terrorist organizations or the proliferation of assault weapons.

Eagleman answered that he’s been wondering the same thing. But he added that neither he nor others interested in the subject have been able to test their suspicions that the brains of many mass shooters harbor detectable anatomical anomalies similar to Whitman’s.

“It is probably the case, more often than not, that there is something really wrong with these people’s brains,” Eagleman said. “We just don’t have the data.”

Elusive evidence

How is that possible? In an age when researchers have long since confirmed the links between certain neurological conditions and sudden eruptions of violence that are otherwise difficult to explain, why has there been no systematic effort to discover (or rule out) the presence of such conditions in known mass murderers?

One explanation is at once grisly and simple: Mass shootings often end in the shooter’s own violent death, and brain tissue that might yield important clues about the shooter’s deficits is often destroyed in the process.

Micah Johnson, the U.S. Army veteran who killed five Dallas police officers and wounded nine others last month, was blown up by a robot armed with plastic explosives.

Omar Mateen, whose attack on an Orlando nightclub three weeks earlier left 50 dead, sustained four gunshot wounds in the head during a fatal showdown with police.

Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, were riddled with bullets in a shootout with police not far from the the San Bernardino banquet hall where they killed 14 people last December.

The four most recent shooters are broadly representative of those involved in the dozen deadliest massacres since December 2012, when Adam Lanza who killed 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

Christopher Harper-Mercer, who killed nine in Rosebury, Ore.; Ivan Lopez, who killed three and wounded 16 at Fort Hood, Tex.; Seung-Hui Cho, who cut down 32 people at Virginia Tech; Elliot Rodger, who killed six and wounded seven in Isla Vista, Cal.; and Lanza all shot themselves in the head as police closed in.

Mohammed Youssuf Abdulazeez, who killed five people in Chattanooga; Aaron Alexis, who murdered 12 at the Washington Navy Yard; and John Zawahri, who gunned down five in Santa Monica, died of wounds sustained in police shootouts. Abdulazeez and Alexis were shot in the head; Zawahri was shot 25 times, although the location of his wounds has not been disclosed publicly.

Only two of the 13 implicated in the dozen deadliest shootings since Sandy Hook were captured alive:

Robert Dear, who killed three people and wounded nine at a Planned Parenthood Clinic in Colorado Springs, has been ruled mentally incompetent to stand trial pending further psychiatric treatment.

Dylan Roof is scheduled to stand trial sometime next year for the murder of nine African Americans attending a prayer meeting at their Charleston, S.C., church.

Both men have undergone psychiatric examinations, but I have been unable to discover whether either has undergone MRI scans or other diagnostic procedures that might reveal structural brain anomalies.

Nor is this pattern recent: Of the 129 individuals (all but three were male) responsible for mass shootings on U.S. soil since Whitman’s 1966 attack, 73 (or well over half) died at or near the scene, usually by their own hand.

In many cases, the perpetrators had complained of delusions, disembodied voices or other phenomena associated with psychotic illness. (Alexis, the Washington Navy Yard gunman, believed that he was controlled by electromagnetic waves.)

Is it a coincidence that so many shooters who took their own lives did so by obliterating the same organ — the brain — to which they traced whatever urgent impulse compelled them?

Rounding up the usual suspects

Whenever a mass shooting takes place, state and federal law enforcement agencies expend enormous investigative time and resources to reconstruct the killer’s thoughts and activities — where he traveled, who he talked to, what venues he patronized and what websites he frequented.

The public’s interest in these investigations typically diverges along political lines. Conservatives (and the news outlets that cater to them) focus on possible links to terrorist groups in the United States or abroad, while liberals zero in on the provenance and lethality of the firearms involved.

The major parties’ presidential candidates hew to the same distinct scripts: When Donald Trump talks about restoring law and order, he tends to talk about ISIS; when Hillary Clinton talks about stemming the scourge of mass shootings, she is more likely to mention limiting the sale of high-capacity magazines or closing the gun show loophole. Neither candidate’s concerns are irrelevant to any comprehensive consideration of mass murder.

But Eagleman thinks that discoveries in neuroscience suggest “a new way forward for law and order” — if we are willing to re-examine some of our most deeply held convictions about good and evil, free choice and individual responsibility.

Reconsidering free choice

Most educated Americans are aware that certain medical conditions, such as Tourette’s syndrome and chorea, can deprive those affected by them of the capacity to control their speech or the movements of their limbs. Although people contending with these conditions cannot be considered culpable for their involuntary actions in the same way that most people are, they also must take care to avoid circumstances in which their conditions may place them or those around them in danger.

Eagleman believes law enforcement will have to develop similar strategies for dealing with people whose anatomical or chemical anomalies put them at increased risk of anti-social behaviors ranging from compulsive gambling and exhibitionism to extreme violence — a population he suggests will expand as medicine’s understanding of brain disorders and its capacity to diagnose them expands.

He doubts that many violent perpetrators are afflicted by “something as obvious as a tumor;” in most cases, he suspects, the deficits are more subtle, and existing diagnostic tools “may not have the resolution to find them.”

But tumors like Whitman’s were once undetectable, and in the five decades since his death MRI technology has rendered many previously hidden pathologies visible. It is easy to imagine that similar diagnostic advances will reveal anatomical and chemical anomalies whose impact is as profound as the malignancy in Whitman’s frontal lobes.

Redirecting our energy

That we should be pursuing such advances with the same urgency we devote to developing new surveillance and counter-terrorism technology seems obvious. If some neurological conditions are like time bombs waiting to go off, shouldn’t we be searching for them as zealously as we search for actual explosives?

Distilling what we currently call “evil” into a more concrete rubric of identifiable pathologies won’t relieve us of the obligation to quarantine carriers. People whose biology makes them dangerous will have to be contained and managed no less than those we currently label monsters, even if our understanding of their culpability evolves.

But we should be systematic in addressing the threat. And it is long past time we began scrutinizing the biology of mass murderers as energetically as we scrutinize their religious ties and access to firearms.


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