On the afternoon of Aug. 1, 1966, Charles Whitman climbed to the Tower’s observation deck at the University of Texas at Austin, armed with a sniper rifle. From there he fired at random, killing 13 people and injuring 32 others. It was a seemingly inexplicable act by a disgruntled individual who had no respect for human life — or was it more complicated than that?
Charles Whitman had a clean history. He had become an accomplished pianist at a young age. He had been moderately popular during high school and was often commended for his intellect. He had served in the marines, earning multiple merits, and then had been selected to receive a college scholarship. He became an engineering student at the University of Texas and had a seemingly bright future. Then he began to experience change. He wrote: “I don’t really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average, reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I cannot recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts.”
Hours later he murdered his wife and his mother. He then remarked:
“If my life insurance policy is valid ... please pay off my debts. ... Donate the rest anonymously to a mental health-foundation. Maybe research can prevent further tragedies of this type.”
He then headed to the Tower on the Austin campus and carried out the rest of his massacre.
So what could have caused this uncontrollable urge to kill? Interestingly, his autopsy revealed that he had a gigantic tumor growing in his brain.
Neuroscientists seem to agree that abnormal growths in certain parts of the brain can cause malicious behavior. One of them is David Eagleman from the Baylor College of Medicine who has seen these biological effects in several inmates. He is leading The Initiative on Neuroscience and Law and has also published the widely acclaimed book “Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain.”
Eagleman said in an interview with NPR that there have been many documented cases. One instance that he mentioned involved a man who had been jailed for exhibiting extremely aggressive sexual behavior. After seeing a doctor for repeated headaches, it was discovered that the man had a massive tumor in his frontal lobe. Doctors removed the tumor, and his obscene behavior subsided. Months later however, the man began resorting to the same aggressive actions. Doctors examined his brain again, and found that they had missed some of the tumor. They removed the remaining bits, and his behavior returned to normal.
It is clear from these examples that biology can play a key role in criminal behavior. The Bureau of Justice Statistics has estimated that over half of American inmates are carrying some sort of mental health problem. Many of these inmates are simply incapable of responding to traditional punishment. That means that one out of every two prisoners, upon their release, could be just as unstable as when they were admitted. What these people need is special psychological attention and treatment, not more time in a jail cell.
Our country’s correctional system needs to be adjusted to accommodate such cases. Eagleman suggests a system of dynamic sentencing, in which each case is looked at on an individual basis. This is not to say that criminals with mental disorders will be let off the hook for their action. Instead, they will be taken off the streets and then given the necessary treatment to allow them to return to society.
Of course there are critics who claim that such an initiative would be far too expensive and complex to implement into our justice system. But when the overcrowded state of America’s prisons is considered — currently containing over 2 million inmates — it is clear that simply locking up more criminals is not a practical option. Providing specialized treatment is a much more socially responsible option that would likely lower the number of repeat offenders.
With how far our understanding of neuroscience and behavior has come, it seems almost archaic that we are still using a one-size-fits-all method of sentencing. It is much more humane to understand the differences in people’s brains and take steps toward providing the aid that many people are in need of. As a result, the government will be able to stop building prisons and will finally have a correctional system that does what it is supposed to.
Andrew is a sophomore in Engineering. He can be reached at email@example.com.