Saturday, April 04, 2009

Infamy and Identity

It's not fashionable to assign accolades to the national news media, but I have to give credit for the way, in general, it has handled the disturbing trend of mass shootings over the last few months. Despite the obvious temptation of correlating the tragedies with the collapse of the U.S. economy, media outlets have resisted oversimplifying what are likely a series of complicated and perhaps unrelated situations. Most importantly though, I appreciate that the main focus of media coverage has generally not been on the psychological state and background of the shooters. This has been of necessity a part of every story, but there has also been attention paid to the victims and in some cases those who helped to end a rampage. Unlike the perpetrators of the Columbine and Virginia Tech tragedies, the recent shooters' names have not penetrated our national consciousness. Perhaps that is because we have chillingly reached a saturation point in which the novelty of a mass shooting has worn off. Or perhaps it is because we recognize the potential dangers in doing so.

More than six years ago, a sociologist and criminal justice professor co-authored this editorial, in which they decried the practice of giving nicknames to killers. The editorial was written during the Beltway Sniper Attacks, and ends with the hopeful sentiment:

Whoever he is, the Washington sniper, despite his newly found fame and the monikers some have for him, is nothing more than a monster who, we hope, soon will be no more than yesterday's news.

This proved to be prophetic: just as the monikers ("Serial Sniper" "Tarot Card Killer") never got traction, the names John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo have been stricken from out collective memory.

The thesis of the editorial is that to give criminals undue attention is wrong because it A)Glamorizes the unglamorous B) Inspires the perpetrators to live up to their reputations and C) Could inspire copycats. Although the second doesn't apply to instances of mass killings, the other two easily could. Additionally, though, I would put another objection on the list. At the risk of falling into oversimplification myself, I would postualate that one of the motivations for high-profile crimes is to assert an identity, or to establish a new identity, in which impotent and ineffectual people can re-imagine themselves as potent and effectual. I think it is safe to say that at the least this was a motivation for the Virginia Tech killer, who mailed what was essentailly a press kit to the media.

So although there is pitifully little we can do after a tragic incident has run its course, we would do well to not give the perpetrators the reward they sought. The less said about them as people, the less that we aid them in using their crimes to construct an identity, the safer we will all be.


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