Column: In mass murders like the one in Arizona, remove the suspect's name to eliminate notoriety
Sirhan Sirhan, the assassin of U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy, said: “They can gas me, but I am famous. I have achieved in one day what it took Robert Kennedy all his life to do.”
Was something like this in the mind of the man in Tucson, Arizona — I will not use his name — who shot 20 innocent people, attempted to assassinate U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, killed U.S. Federal Judge John Roll and five other individuals, including a beautiful 9-year-old girl named Christina Taylor Green?
We may never know, but based on his mug shot — which looks like a high school senior picture of Uncle Fester of Addams Family fame — I would guess we will not be able to shut this guy up. He is enjoying his celebrity because it came quicker than even that of Paris Hilton or Snooki.
Perhaps I am journalistically naÃ¯ve, but I know criminals. Shooters like the one in Tucson thrive on the media attention. They have been a “nobody” all of their lives, and suddenly after committing such a despicable act, they are rock stars without having to work for it. My fear is their fame may inspire others to try to emulate them.
Perhaps it is human nature that we must put a face on our most evil citizens, but does that encourage the next mentally or emotionally disturbed “lone wolf” shooter? Is it possible that the media attention lavished on the Tucson shooter may inspire another person out there sitting on the fence wondering, “Should I? Shouldn’t I?” Wouldn’t it be nice if the American public got together and asked the media to stop naming these shooters and quit plastering their pictures on front pages and teasers for the evening news?
This is a tall order of business to change the way the media portrays these criminals. The images of these monsters sell papers, create viewers or readers, which sell advertisements that fund our media. I understand this, but does the media portrayal add to the problem?
Several years ago, I attended a great seminar at the University of Michigan Police Department where Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman, the author of "On Killing and Stop Teaching Our Kids To Kill: A Call To Action Against TV, Movie And Video Game Violence" was the speaker. He gave statistics about how murder rates rose considerably after a country was exposed to television. Grossman’s theory was that even the very tame violence and killing in 1950s and '60s American television shows how viewers desensitized to killing and violence influenced murder rates.
Think about today’s video games, which are so realistic they're like combat simulators. Doesn’t it make sense that these games desensitize some of the players and blur reality and fantasy in some of the less mature or rational gamers? Isn’t the object of most of the combat games to rack up a large body count to get to the next level of the game? Haven’t we heard enough of the “lone wolf” shooters in pre-incident videos making references to becoming famous for the audacity of their crime and the body counts they hoped to attain?
Enough is enough. Let’s try to save that person who is on the edge from acting out. Let’s contact media outlets to request that the name and faces of “lone wolf” shooters not be released. Let’s keep these deranged individuals anonymous.
The police should still release the name to the media so journalists can do their research. The media could still report the crime. Neighbors of the disturbed individual could still be contacted for their comments about how they never dreamed anyone like that lived in their neighborhood. The suspect’s house could still be photographed with investigators taking evidence out in brown paper bags. News choppers could still fly over the shooter’s home.
The gun shop owner who sold the gun could still be interviewed, and the type of weapon used could still be demonstrated by that shop owner. Experts could still pontificate on motives and the abnormal psychology of the shooter. The shooter’s parents could still be interviewed. Just eliminate the shooter’s name and face from media reports.
In all reporting, keep the person involved in such a horrific crime anonymous. These are bad people. Describe them in terms with bad connotations — do not use their name and blur their image. These types of criminals derive power from their celebrity and empower those who wish to follow in their footsteps. Take away their name and face in the media, and they remain the nameless, faceless losers as they have been in life.
Lock it up, don’t leave it unattended, be aware and watch out for your neighbor.
Rich Kinsey is a retired Ann Arbor police detective sergeant who now blogs about crime and safety for AnnArbor.com.