I don’t know the name of the Toronto killer; and neither should you

For a while, I’ve been writing on the need to not reveal the names of mass killers and not obsess on their possible “motives” (they are all totally crazy in the colloquial sense– there is no truly understanding why a human being kills a bunch of innocent strangers).  But my blog and complaints to my students do not actually change common journalistic practices.  These concerns expressed by an esteemed Washington Post journalist, however, might actually help get the ball rolling in the direction it so needs to go.  Thus, I love this column from David von Drehle:

His motives are unknown. So we must hear the killer’s name over and over again. We must view the same mug shot or driver’s license photo with every update of the day’s headlines. (Maybe someone will find the motives in those blank, dull eyes.) The mass murderer’s unknown motives compel us to document his last weeks, last days, last hours, as if following his footsteps might lead us, like pirates with a treasure map, to a buried trunk full of why.

I suppose there is nothing new in this pursuit. The murderer’s mind is magnetic; drawing in Dostoevsky and Dreiser, captivating Capote, mesmerizing Mailer. Last week, the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing was awarded to Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah for her powerful magazine essay in search of the motives behind the Charleston, S.C., church massacre…

But it’s such an unsatisfying concoction. Our hunger for reason isn’t satisfied by a stew of irrational and non-rational factors. Mental distress is a what, not a why — or so it seems in the onward pursuit of the elusive motives…

Yet it’s never quite explanation enough, because no motive ever matches the awful weight and finality of the crime. [emphases mine] We want something commensurate, something symmetrical, an injury or crusade equal to all the blood shed by innocent strangers. Instead we have only these small men with their lethal inadequacies.

And so it continues, new sickos stimulated by the images of the ones before, staking their own claims to a news cycle or two, their own faces flashed repeatedly on the screen, and their motives pronounced unknown. On the car radio this morning, there it was again: The reporter said the man in Toronto was a fan of the mass killer in Santa Barbara, Calif., who summed it up this way: “Infamy is better than total obscurity.”

So I ask my fellow journalists: When the killers themselves are telling us they draw inspiration from the prospect of our coverage, why do we continue to say their names and show their pictures? Nothing is ever learned by doing this. No explanation requites the deadly facts. If nothing’s gained, what could be our motive — especially knowing that we might be supplying theirs?

I really, really hope this is the beginning of something.  If even just one spree killing doesn’t happen (though I strongly suspect it would be more) because journalists acted more responsibly in this regard that would be a huge gain at only the cost of not having our salacious curiosity satisfied.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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