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The Charles Whitman Precedent

Written by Sergei Bourachaga

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Sergei Bourachaga’s latest essay compares the Robert Bales case in Afghanistan with the massacre by Charles Whitman in Texas almost half a century ago. The author considers the possibility that Staff Sgt. Bales may have sustained permanent damage to his forebrain as the result of an earlier IED incident. The injury could conceivably have had the same effect as Charles Whitman’s brain tumor.

Has the U.S. military considered this possibility in its investigation of the massacre in Afghanistan? Or will political pressure for a particular outcome prevent such forensic analyses?

From Gates of Vienna

Staff Sergeant Robert Bales and Charles Whitman

by Sergei Bourachaga

whitmanbalesMany of us in North America are by now familiar with the name of Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, the US Soldier who on the night of March 11, 2012, after a heavy drinking binge, allegedly crept away from his military base in Southern Afghanistan and killed 16 unarmed Afghan villagers. Nine of the 16 killed were children and 11 belonged to one family.

I highly doubt any Americans, except those who studied psychiatry, law, neurobiology etc…, remember the name of the US citizen Charles Whitman and the massacre associated with his name in The State of Texas well over four decades ago. On August 1, 1966 the 25-five-year-old Whitman dragged a heavy duffle bag full of weapons and ammunition to the observation deck of the University of Texas Tower in Austin. Once inside the observation deck, Whitman killed a receptionist with his rifle butt, opened fire on a group of tourists who were visiting the tower, and then focused on pedestrians walking in the vicinity below the tower, killing first a pregnant women and her husband. By the time the police force responded to the carnage and brought the situation under control by killing Whitman, 13 innocent victims lost their lives, 32 others were seriously wounded, and some of the injured died during the subsequent weeks despite heroic medical interventions to save their lives.

The media covered extensively the tragedy unleashed by Whitman, and those who knew Whitman through social ties or professional exposure to his decent personality were in a state of shock and disbelief, especially when investigators went to Whitman’s home in search of clues that can explain the aberrant burst of violence exercised by Whitman, and discovered instead two more female bodies stabbed to death-Whitman’s mother and wife. A suicide note found by investigators on Whitman’s desk begun to shed some light on the etiology of the medical problems that affected Whitman’s judgment, and gradually dragged him into the abyss of despair where he intentionally triggered a phenomenon known as “Suicide by Cop”.

The typewritten suicide note left behind by Whitman was a mirror reflection of the pain that wasn’t only affecting his mind but also engulfing his soul. For the purpose of this article the following paragraphs are of significant importance:

I don’t really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately and I can’t recall when it all started, I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts.

It was after much thought that I decided to kill my wife, Kathy, tonight … I love her dearly, and she has been as fine a wife to me as any man could ever hope to have. I cannot rationally pinpoint any specific reason for doing this …

I talked with a Doctor once about my overwhelming violent thoughts and impulses. After one session I never saw the Doctor again, and since then I have been fighting my demons alone, and seemingly to no avail.

Whitman concluded his suicide note with a passionate plea to perform an autopsy on his brain after his death, to determine if any pathology affecting the structure of the brain can be connected to his tragic decisions. As suspected by Whitman and confirmed by the medical examiner, a tumor affecting the amygdala was responsible for the radical change in Whitman’s impulsive thoughts and irrational behavior.

The amygdala is involved in the regulation of two key emotions: fear and aggression. Researchers managed to associate beyond a reasonable doubt three abnormal behavioral factors — lack of fear, blunting of emotions, and overreaction — with damages inflicted on the amygdala. Under carefully controlled clinical interventions performed on monkeys, neurosurgeons inflicted lesions on the amygdala of monkeys, and a constellation of violent behavior became ubiquitous. Female monkeys killed or abandoned their infants, and monkeys who were very passive prior to the surgeries on the amygdala, turned into violent brutes bludgeoning randomly and without any provocations any creature within immediate reach.

The annals of forensic psychiatry are full of stories involving normal individuals who had serious medical problems affecting the brain, and more importantly the frontal lobe area of the brain. In general the horror stories culminating in death and mayhem start with tragic failures of the medical establishment to diagnose in a timely manner the existing structural damage and the neuro-chemical imbalance affecting the frontal lobe, until one day without any prior warning, seemingly very normal caring individuals turn into violent bloodthirsty monsters. Forensic psychiatrists, in courtrooms all over the world, on a daily basis testify and insist to judges and juries, that even minor damages to the brain structure due to concussions, mini strokes, direct blows to the head, infections etc… affect the balance of brain chemistry, and cause large and unexpected changes in behavior. Forensic psychiatrists reconfirm daily to the legal establishment the maxim researchers have discovered in hundreds of labs associated with prestigious universities: “Human behavior cannot be separated from human biology.” Thus inviting the legal community to set aside the antiquated notion that all criminals engage in acts of violence based on “free will”, because free will does not exist independently from a well chemically balanced and structurally intact brain.

According to Army Capt. Chris Alexander, former platoon leader of Staff Sgt Bales, the killings attributed to Bales are “…100% out of character.” He pointed out to the media that Bales was “one of the best guys I ever worked with. He always made sure his team was ready, that they were briefed on the mission, that the equipment was checked. Anything he was given to do, you never had to worry about it getting done and done well. “I’m not a psychologist, but you don’t go from being a solid NCO (non commissioned officer) to this unless there are extenuating circumstances. He is not some psychopath. He’s an outstanding soldier who has given a lot for this country.” What could be some of the extenuating circumstances involved in this tragedy?

A selective and partial release by the US Army of Staff Sgt Bales medical records indicate several factors that his defence team must seriously take into consideration. In three tours of duty in Iraq, Bates was injured twice. The first one was the end result of an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) that overturned Bates’ Humvee and paved the way for a TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury). The second one, again involved an IED that forced surgeons to remove part of his foot. Though any psychiatrist will admit that losing organs or undergoing surgeries in a combat zone to remove parts of a limb can easily trigger a PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), the US Army downplayed the presence of any PTSD problems.

After each tour of duty Bates was stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) in Washington State. JBLM has an extremely bad reputation based on a terribly high suicide rate — more than 20 men in uniform have taken their lives in the past two years alone. The top brass at the base consistently and systematically pressured the team of psychiatrists working at JBLM to downplay the seriousness of TBI and PTSD, and assign mild medical labels and categories to serious psychiatric problems affecting soldiers returning from war zones:

 

a) To generate substantial monetary savings by absolving the US Army from the responsibility of providing long-term medical care to members afflicted with mental illnesses.
b) To make a higher number of returning soldiers ready for redeployment or a new tour of duty, since the recruitment efforts are not adequate to generate new manpower to cover the needs of an army spread very thin over several zones of operations.

As one medical expert reviewing the sad reality of the base put it, “Bales was not a rogue soldier. JBLM is a rogue base, with a severe leadership problem.”

Bales should have been under serious medical observation after his TBI. Any psychiatrist can confirm that even a mild brain injury or concussion can generate serious behavioral problems, several years down the road. TBI could have easily predisposed Bates to impulsive and irrational behavior, especially if the damage targeted the frontal lobe area of the brain. Mental test written/verbal exams administered at JBLM are not adequate to assess his or any other soldier’s readiness for redeployment. What is needed is serious MRI studies of his brain preferably with contrast dies for more accurate results.

By the way: even MRI studies can sometimes miss the presence of problems. The list of extenuating circumstances does not end with TBI and PTSD and poor medical management of these problems. Several other factors have contributed to the phenomenon defined in psychiatric jargon as “The Shattering of the Psyche”. The day before Bales allegedly committed the atrocities against Afghan civilians, he was standing next to a team member when an IED severed the soldier’s leg. And last but not least, the anger he carried with him to Afghanistan when JBLM commanders promised that he would not be affected by any other tours of duty after his third return from Iraq, and then abruptly reversed their decision by reassigning him to a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Add to all these previously mentioned details alcohol consumption, financial problems, long absences from family and social support, and you have a flammable mix of pain ready to ignite and spread horror.

I hope before the US justice system succeeds in sacrificing Staff Sgt. Bales on the altar of political correctness, his defence team will probe and exhaust all means available to assess Bale’s mental condition from the day he left JBLM to the night of the massacre. In the event that neural damage proves to be a factor, I hope that mercy will be considered before a harsh sentence is imposed in a mad race to pursue justice at any price to pacify allies such as Afghanistan, where the entire corrupt justice system is not a shining example of success.

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