Anonymizing The Shooters

New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, staked out a firm — and interesting — position after a terrorist attack by a white supremacist on two New Zealand mosques killed dozens of people last month.  “[Y]ou will never hear me mention his name,” said Ardern. “He is a terrorist, he is a criminal, he is an extremist. But he will, when I speak, be nameless.”  She added: “He may have sought notoriety, but we in New Zealand will give him nothing. Not even his name.”

anongiftsPrime Minister Ardern is the latest figure to argue that the individuals who commit mass shootings should be anonymized, and that news reports of such crimes should not name the killers.

The anonymity effort traces its roots back to the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School, which produced massive coverage of the American teenagers who did the killing.  The Columbine shootings are believed to have motivated many other mass shootings, both in the United States and around the world, and some observers argue that giving the Columbine shooters publicity and celebrity-style coverage only encourages future attacks.  The New Zealand shooter, for example, was supposedly inspired by a 2015 mass shooting at a church in Charleston, South Carolina.

As one criminologist, Adam Lankford, has put it:  “A lot of these shooters want to be treated like celebrities. They want to be famous. So the key is to not give them that treatment.”  Detailed news coverage of shootings can also be used as a guide to would-be shooters who are planning their own mass attacks, and can motivate future killers to try to outdo the death tolls in prior shootings.  It’s apparently a sad, sick reality of our modern world that some people are so obsessed with becoming famous that they will commit heinous crimes against innocent strangers to obtain the publicity they crave.

Should the terrorists and criminals who commit mass shootings be named, or should the news media refrain from identifying shooters while otherwise providing the news about such killings?  There’s no doubt that the names of criminals are part of the news.  Every new reporter learns about the “5 Ws and an H” — who, what, where, when, why, and how — that should elements of any news story.  But members of the news media also are part of society and have always accepted some element of social responsibility in their news coverage — by not publishing ultra-bloody or violent images, for example.  Withholding the names of mass shooters who hope for notoriety is just one additional step down that same path.

I don’t know whether anonymizing mass shooters will help to discourage future tragedies, but I do know that what has been done to date hasn’t worked.  I applaud the stance of Prime Minister Ardern and hope that reporters and editors will start to recognize that providing publicity to such shooters simply makes the new media a pawn in their sick and twisted effort to become famous.

One Horrific Mass Shooting Follows Another

Today brought news of another mass shooting.  They all seem to be inexplicable, but this one was inexplicable, squared:  three heavily armed, masked gunman show up at the Inland Regional Center, a social services center in San Bernardino and begin firing; the present count is 14 dead and 17 wounded, at least 10 of whom are in critical condition.

California ShootingsWhy would anyone want to attack a social services center that helps developmentally disabled people?

At this point, no one has said what the motive was, but one thing is clear — the people came armed and intending to kill many people.  Authorities say they were “on a mission.”  Whether that mission was a random terrorist attack, or a revenge massacre by crazed former employees, or some other scenario, we don’t know.  The fact that we are talking about a group of attackers using sophisticated weaponry who fled the scene, rather than a lone lunatic armed with handguns who ends up committing suicide after he’s committed his evil deeds, suggests that this incident might turn out to be different from the all-too-distressing norm.

When people are attacking schools and centers for the developmentally disabled, a part of the fabric of our society seems to be irreparably torn.I don’t know what we do to end the cycle of massacres in the United States, but whatever we are doing now just isn’t working.   

Edited to add:  Here’s the latest from the L.A. Times on the shooting.  It looks like there is a lot still to learn about exactly what happened, and why a husband and wife team armed with assault gear chose this target.