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The menace of the psychotic killer is the more frightening because he may seem a model citizen until he goes berserk. Many of them "have a feeling that there is a demon within themselves," says Los Angeles Clinical Psychiatrist Martin Grotjahn, "and they try to kill the demon by model behavior." Sensing aggressive impulses that frighten them, adds a Manhattan analyst, "they live the opposite of what they feel. They become gentle, very mild, extremely nice people, and often show a compulsive need to be perfectionistic," which is one reason why people can always be found to describe a murderer as a "nice" or a "gentle" or a "good" boy, as some described Charles Whitman last week.
Some psychiatrists estimate that the percentage of potential mass killers in the U.S. ranges as high as 1 per 1,000 of the population, or about 200,000 Americans. Most, of course, will never carry out their aggressive urges, but enough will so that unsuspecting people will continue to fall victim to their irrationality. Says Houston Psychiatrist C. A. Dwyer: "Potential killers are everywhere these days. They are driving cars, going to church with you, working with you. And you never know it until they snap."
Is there any way to identify the psychotic killer before he snaps and acts? The doctors will only say: sometimes. Any violent personality change should signal an alert to family and friends—a habitually shy and quiet person who suddenly becomes aggressive and talkative, or the reverse. Other danger signs: depression and seclusion, hypersensitivity to little slights and insults, a change in normal patterns of eating or sleeping, uncontrolled outbursts of temper, disorganized thinking and morbid interest in such potential tools of destruction as guns or knives. Psychiatrists are quick to add that the appearance of even all those symptoms does not necessarily mean that a man is about to turn killer. But the symptoms do mean that he is in need of help.
Even if a dangerous psychotic reaches the examining room, it is by no means certain that he can be headed off. Most doctors agree that the University of Texas psychiatrist was without fault in taking no action even after Whitman confessed his urge to climb to the tower and kill people several months before the event took place. "Thousands of people—and I mean literally thousands," says University of Chicago Psychiatrist Robert S. Daniels, "talk to doctors about having such feelings. Nearly all of them are just talking." Deciding which patients mean it is still more art than science. Doctors tend to take a patient seriously, of course, if he relates his threat to a particular happening or circumstance ("The next time they read my mind, I will . . .") or has the immediate means and resources to carry out his threat (a chemist who threatens to poison people).