The Enemy Within

On Oct. 19, 1949, Howard Unruh, 28, an honorably discharged Army veteran who lived at home in Camden, N.J., with his mother and attended church daily, left his house after breakfast armed with a German Luger pistol, and in a space of twelve minutes shot and killed 13 people with 14 shots, wounding several others.

He then returned to his apartment and participated in a standoff with the police until he was finally apprehended. At the time it was considered the first mass single episode shooting spree in America. The incident sticks in my mind because Meyer Berger, a reporter for The New York Times wrote a mesmerizing minute-by-minute account of the killings that won him a Pulitzer Prize for reporting.

I remember being so absorbed in the story that I missed my subway stop and did not rise from my seat until I had read every word of that account.

While Unruh was being besieged, an enterprising reporter from the Camden Evening Courier, Philip W. Buxton, called Unruh’s home and reported the following conversation with him. Here is some of the dialogue:

” What are they doing to you?”
“They haven’t done anything to me yet, but I’m doing plenty to them.”
“How many have you killed?”
“I don’t know yet. I haven’t counted them. But it looks like a pretty good score.”
“Why are you killing people?”
“I don’t know. I can’t answer that yet. I’m too busy. I’ll have to talk to your later. A couple of friends are coming to get me.”
Later the police reported that he had told them, “I’m no psycho. I have a good mind.”

There was no remorse, no compassion, no regret but in fact, bizarre hints of elation.

Unruh was diagnosed by experts as a paranoid schizophrenic and lived in a mental institution until he died 60 years later at the age of 88. One is tempted to calculate the cost of such incarceration against the human cost incurred by his victims and their families. But that is an argument for another time.

The recent horrific incident in Aurora and the mass killing sprees that have taken place in our country and others since the Unruh killings indicate that, however we explain and analyze them after the fact, however modern science and technology has tried to predict such behavior in advance, we have been unable to protect society from the dangers of such a sudden violent and destructive aberration.

Of course, we have come a long way scientifically to unlock many of the mysteries of the human brain and the ways it affects human behavior. We have used this information to devise drugs to alter behavior, and control many of the aberrations that can help calm or redirect negative impulses that could be dangerous to ourselves and others, but we are still in the dark trying to prevent the sudden surge of violent behavior that causes such events as Aurora.

As a result of this latest tragedy we will be treated to numerous explanations by layman, politicians and experts as to why such events occur. Some will blame the proliferation of guns. Some will blame computer games, especially those where the score is calculated on kill numbers. Some will blame drug abuse, bad parenting, poverty, inadequate education, and other social ills.

Some will blame the culture of violence and its many manifestations in the entertainment industry. Obviously, violence fascinates. It most certainly sells. Indeed, the kill count in daily entertainment media is infinite. Superheroes are superheroes because they are superkillers, whatever their alleged righteous cause.

It is ironic that not too long ago, groups that organized to protest the violence depicted by comic books actually did have a brief negative impact on the comic book industry. Considering the latest episode and where it occurred, the protest had little lasting effect.

Others will blame the fact that we no longer routinely incarcerate people with diagnosed mental illnesses known to result in dangerous behavior. Indeed, it is no secret that many of our homeless are people who years ago would have been kept sequestered in mental institutions. They now roam the streets aimlessly, barely able to care for themselves.

Movies like The Snakepit and horror stories about such institutions, many of them accurate, led to the demise of these institutions. Instead of top to bottom reform, it was determined that it might be less of a risk to society and more cost effective to close numerous facilities, and entrust pharmaceutical methods of controlling behavior.

The issue of commitment, to place a human being in confinement, based on the opinion of psychiatric professionals has always been a tough call. But by easing up on such action, we have gambled that events such as Aurora could be contained. Perhaps such a political choice should be reconsidered.

We can point fingers ad infinitum about who is to blame for such horrors as Aurora. There is no clear answer and no clear path to blame.

Mass murderers come in different guises — the single spree mass killers like Unruh, the Texas tower killer and numerous others, the one-at-a-time serial killers like Bundy and Dahmer, the mass murder persuaders like Hitler and Stalin, and those unspeakable suicide bombers who make the myths of hell and damnation seem like a walk in the park.

History seems one perpetual war between the good and evil that lurks within the human psyche. At times, when we observe Aurora and the bloody events occurring all over the planet, it often seems like evil is winning.

The great bard, as always, had it right, “The fault… is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”