It happened again last week, this time in Oregon. It was all so much the same -- the college campus, the seething misfit, the arsenal of firearms, the blanket media coverage, the incremental revelations that suggested a grim inevitability to the fatal spasm of insanity, as if the massacre were a previously undetected aneurysm that just eventually ruptured.
Of course, it wasn’t inevitable at all what happened to take the lives of nine innocent men and women at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg. Someone might have intervened earlier regarding the shooter’s mental health. Someone might have had the common sense to link his disturbing social media posts with a potential for violence. The National Rifle Association and the Republican Party -- along with more than a few craven and cynical Democrats -- might not have conspired for decades to make guns and military ammo ubiquitous.
Which is why 500,000 Americans have died by gunshot over the past 15 years. To answer the rhetorical question posed by President Obama on Friday, yes, the toll of 3000 deaths in the same period from terror attacks on our soil does seem to point up the true insanity: a society that obsesses over so-called Homeland Security while inviting an ongoing bloodbath.
But in one material way, this latest atrocity was different.
Once the killer was identified, the sheriff of Douglas County, Oregon refused to share the information with the press.
“You will never hear me mention his name,” said Sheriff John Hanlin. “I will not give him the credit he probably sought prior to this horrific and cowardly act."
Now it happens that Hanlin is a reactionary, Second Amendment-thumping kook, who after Sandy Hook used social media to share a sicko conspiracy theory postulating that the massacre of schoolchildren was a hoax designed to make it easy for the tyrannical government to confiscate everyone’s gun. ("This makes me wonder who we can trust anymore," he told his Facebook friends. "Watch, listen, and keep an open mind.")
Yeah, no. Shut up, you paranoid crackpot.
It’s also true that within minutes of being deprived of public information, the press wrested it from a federal law-enforcement source, and the media were off and running in the search for answers. The problem is, exactly as Hanlin feared, first they broadcast the shooter’s name to the whole world, thousands of times over. Yet another mass killer had entered the pantheon of sociopathy.
And the problem with that is not necessarily journalistic malpractice, but the cultural environment in which the reporting takes place. In a society that does not distinguish between notoriety and celebrity, that makes icons and even anti-heroes out of villains, that rewards obscure, murderous misfits with instant worldwide recognition, the very process of basic reporting makes the media accessories after the fact of this atrocity, and before the fact of the next one.
And Sheriff Hanlin isn’t only one who thinks so. The Roseburg killer himself mused over the attention heaped a month ago on the Roanoke, Virginia murderer of a local news team, writing in a blog post: “A man who was known by no one, is now known by everyone. His face splashed across every screen, his name across the lips of every person on the planet, all in the course of one day. Seems the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.”
And so this latest deranged wannabe sought the limelight. And got it, leaving 10 corpses, including his own. And so do the media become the de facto marketers of mayhem.
I’ve spoken at length to a man named Tom Teves, whose son Alex was gunned down in the 2012 Aurora, Co. movie-theater shooting. He runs an organization called NoNotoriety.com, dedicated to discouraging news organizations from glorifying killers, or even giving them the dignity of attention by name.
“When we talk to different journalists and they talk about ‘Well, we have to research their background to find out what motivated them,’ I much applaud that,” Teves told me. “You do need to research their background. What you don't need to do is use their names and their likenesses. Definitely if they're at large, use their names and their likenesses to bring them to justice. But once they're apprehended, that's really no longer a part of the story other than to create a call to action for another like-minded killer to take his plans and his thoughts and make them deeds.
“The FBI doesn't want you to name them, they don't want you to talk to them, they don't want their pictures. Some of the psychiatrists say that if you have to put a picture of them on, if you just can't stop yourself, the reasonable thing to do is show a picture of them either in a very unflattering pose or preferably on the autopsy table. “
The journalist in me makes me bristle at the idea. After all, “what, when, where, why” and, most of all “who.” But the marketplace analyst in me makes me take pause. And also the citizen in me. And also the father in me.
“This is about saving your children,” he said, “and your grandchildren, and possibly yourself.”