It’s comforting to think of mass murderers as boogeymen: they’re lurking underneath your bed and in your closet, but if you don’t believe in them, they’ll go away. Don’t use their names. Don’t print their pictures. Don’t talk about them and they cease to exist.
And in a fantasy world, maybe that would work. You’d take a page from Harry Potter and refer to James Holmes as “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named,” denying him power. You’d promise to never say “Wade Michael Page” three times in a dark bathroom, lest he crawl out of the mirror Bloody Mary-style and open fire.
These are superstitions. We don’t create psychopaths by putting them on the front page.
To be fair, there is a rational basis for the correlation — mass murderers are, at times, motivated by a desire for media attention. A shooter could carry out a brutal act of violence with the hope of getting his name in print. He may not be alive to see it, but yes, perhaps his dying wish was to go out in a blaze of 24-hour-news-cycle “glory.”
But it’s naive to think theoretical media coverage is what pushes a person over the edge, as though not printing James Holmes’ name or photo would somehow stay the hand of a white supremacist gun nut like Wade Michael Page. It’s a pleasant thought in some ways, because it allows us to feel we have a modicum of control over unpredictable acts of violence. Don’t give these people attention, and poof, they’re gone.
“You’re making this monster famous,” the internet commenters decry. No, that’s not how it works. You gain infamy by shooting a U.S. congresswoman in the head, or by opening fire on a midnight showing at a movie theater. These acts aren’t soon forgotten, and the perpetrators receive the notoriety assigned to all mass murderers. It’s not a reward — it’s a fact of life. Do something horrible and be remembered for doing something horrible.
These are killers, not Kardashians: not talking about them does nothing to undo what they did, nor does it prevent future mentally unbalanced people from doing the same. It’s also important to note the distinction between infamy and celebrity — to print James Holmes’ picture is not to make him a star. He doesn’t become a style icon. He doesn’t get a reality show. Outside of a few disturbed individuals on Facebook, he’s universally reviled, not a cult hero.
The pearl-clutching “You mustn’t say his name” response comes from fear, but it’s also a self-righteous declaration of moral superiority. It’s a way of letting everyone know that you’re above the news coverage and the media frenzy — the same thing you could accomplish, on a more personal level, by turning off the TV. I won’t pin this all on Aaron Sorkin and The Newsroom, but blaming the “broken media” feels more de rigueur than ever.
“What happened to the good old days of news coverage?” This criticism suggests that we haven’t always sensationalized crimes and expressed a fascination with mass murderers. It also strikes me as weirdly repetitive: blaming the media is only the latest iteration of blaming video games, blaming movies, and blaming TV. It comes from the misguided belief that the depiction of violence creates more violence.
Does a flashy CNN graphic give people like Page ideas? Maybe. So, too, a first-person shooter or a movie about a mass murderer. Psychopaths will find inspiration wherever they can, but the media they consume isn’t what turns them into monsters. We want this to be true, because it’s nice to believe that violence isn’t innate so much as something we’ve inflicted on our culture. But no, acts of terror existed long before the representation of terror.
You can criticize the media for “breeding the next generation of psychopaths,” as one Gawker commenter so absurdly suggested. It won’t change the way we report news, or the fact that terrible people do terrible things. But it’s tough to accept the reality of a mass shooting a mere 16 days after the last one.
Assign blame where you see fit and find comfort in false beliefs: the boogeymen aren’t going anywhere.