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Date: 01/08/16

"Are You Listening To Me?"

Fifty years ago today, a young man called Charles Whitman walked calmly across the campus at the University of Texas in Austin, entered the tower building which stood as the centrepiece of the complex and took a ride up to the top of the edifice.

Whitman had already killed his wife and mother that morning and had added another three people to his haul before he reached the observation deck. There he continued his day's work by firing at people crossing the courtyard below, eventually killing another twelve (with another man dying many years later from his injuries). The local police - assisted by members of the public (this was Texas, after all) - finally brought Whitman down a couple of hours later.

A gubernatorial commission of enquiry led to recommendations for an aid program for the wounded and others affected by the massacre (which was not put into action; this was Texas, after all), and the ineffectiveness of the police department's response and the inadequacy of their resources led ultimately to the establishment of the first S.W.A.T. teams to deal with such events in future (which was put into effect; this was Texas, after all). President Lyndon Johnson - a man with close ties with the Austin area from birth and his earlier political career as a State and Federal Senator - tried in the wake of the case to get stronger gun control laws passed by Congress. However, despite the Democrats having swamping majorities in both House and Senate, the bill in question was watered down to meaninglessness on the floor of both houses as a result of pressure from the gun lobby (yes, it was happening then, too).

And so the mass shootings have continued to this very day, and the State of Texas' latest response is to implement a law allowing people to carry guns in most of the campus' buildings. Same as it ever was; this is Texas, after all.

Perhaps the only good thing to come from Charles Whitman's homicidal outburst is a song.

I've mentioned before my love for the work of Harry Chapin (and it's just gone thirty-five years since he left us). On his 1972 LP, sardonically titled Sniper And Other Love Songs, the title track tells the story (because Harry was as much a story-teller as a songwriter), but from the protagonist's viewpoint. This was much of a piece with Chapin's approach to story-telling, being always more interested in the tales of the misfit and the marginalised. He takes the odd liberty with the facts, but the underlying truth remains intact.

It's one of Harry's longest songs (clocking in just under ten minutes), but nothing is extraneous in it. Its power can still - like with most of his work - reduce me to tears, and the construction, production (by Fred Kewley) and arrangement (by Harry's brother Steve) only add to the force supplied by the impassioned singing of the shooter's howl of depairing rage at the world:

"Am I?
I am a lover who's never been kissed.
Am I?
I am a fighter who's not made a fist.
Am I?
If I'm alive then there's so much I've missed.
How do I know I exist?

"Are you listening to me?
Are you listening to me?
Am I?"

And - with chilling prophecy - looks ahead to being remembered. Who cares for what? Being remembered is what matters:

"I was.

"I am.

"And now, I WILL BE."

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(Sparked off by this piece in the Guardian).