Obscurity: No Crueler Punishment!


I feel awful about what happened in Colorado, but can we stop the hugging and the teddy bears? Just as society can become inured to violence, it can also become inured to sentiment. There is nothing so hackneyed in the world of photojournalism as pictures of the hugging and the shrines with candles and teddy bears after a tragedy, with a piano softly trilling in the background.

This accomplishes nothing. If you want to do something, please write a check to a good charity, a family financially harmed by the shooting, or send flowers to a specific person.

It is also not helpful to have politicians and television personalities pledging not to discuss the alleged shooter. Unlike most news, that information serves an actual purpose, such has helping us recognize warning signs in other potential mass murderers in the future.

Only people who are themselves obsessed with being famous could imagine that any kind of fame — even infamy — is some kind of a reward. Thus, President Barack Obama and MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, among others, have vowed to punish the suspect by not mentioning his name.

If only we had thought of that with Adolf Hitler! Apparently, it wasn’t Hitler’s twisted Darwinian “master race” philosophy that led to the Holocaust. He just wanted to get his name in the paper. Say anything you want about how much I hate Jews — just spell my name right!

This is the apotheosis of the “Jersey Shore” mentality.

Similarly, why is it assumed that we honor the victims by endlessly dissecting their lives for public inspection? Maybe they were private people. The mad quest for fame is nearly as peculiar a phenomenon as the desire to commit murder. Not everyone has it.

It’s especially strange to assume that fame was the motive of alleged Colorado shooter James Holmes, inasmuch as the murders occurred at the premiere of a Batman movie; Holmes told the police he was “the Joker,” Batman’s frequent antagonist; Holmes has Batman posters in his apartment; and he had dyed his hair bright red, attempting to resemble the Joker.

All that not only indicates that Holmes is off his rocker — the opposite of calculatingly pursuing press clips — but also suggests the possibility that a movie inspired his deadly fantasy.

But no one would dare raise Hollywood violence as a possible cause of this mass murder. Former U.S. senator Christopher Dodd, now head of the Motion Picture Association of America, instantly came out for gun restrictions in response to the Colorado shooting.

If I were Hollywood’s chief lobbyist, I think I’d keep my yap shut after a mass shooting that was inspired, at least in part, by a Hollywood movie.

I don’t blame Hollywood any more than I blame the gun. But the refusal to consider the possibility of a Hollywood connection proves that not talking about Holmes is pure grandstanding. If these self-righteous champions of the victims really cared about stopping the next mass murderer, shouldn’t they consider all possible factors?

The copycat theory is only one of many, many theories about what inspires mass killings, but it’s hardly airtight. There have been humans intent on murder since Cain — and he didn’t get the idea from watching an MSNBC special on Richard Speck. (Though I’m sure he would have loved MSNBC’s prime-time programming!)

The Columbine murderers weren’t inspired by an earlier school shooting: The killers originally planned to blow up their school, but couldn’t get the bombs to work. Their other idea was to hijack a plane and fly it into buildings in New York — and this was two years before the 9/11 terrorist attack.

Two of the most famous mass murderers in history are Hitler and Charles Manson, and they do not seem to have inspired copycats. Nor have any terrorists attempted to hijack any airplanes since 9/11, though there are other factors at work there, such as George W. Bush killing them first.

The strongest case for media coverage of mass murders producing copycats was made by Clayton Cramer in his award-winning article, “Ethical Problems of Mass Murder Coverage in the Mass Media.”

But on close examination, Cramer mostly proves that the methods of mass murder are copied by other psychopaths who are already intent on engaging in the crime. Media coverage doesn’t create the desire to commit an infamous crime simply for publicity’s sake.

Thus, Cramer demonstrates that a few months after Time and Newsweek gave massive coverage to Patrick Purdy’s 1989 massacre at an elementary school in Stockton, Calif. — with particular emphasis on the guns — a mental patient, Joseph Wesbecker, shot up his workplace with the same type of guns Purdy had used.

A subsequent search of Wesbecker’s home revealed a marked-up copy of the Feb. 6 Time magazine, opened to the cover story on mass murderers, which was heavily underlined. The magazine’s cover was a picture of two crossed automatic weapons over a human skull shaped like the United States with the title, “Armed America.”

Time magazine didn’t put the idea of mass murder in Wesbecker’s head. Years earlier he had discussed killing people with his psychiatrist — specifically people at work.

But Time’s cover story blaming the guns did prompt Wesbecker to purchase those types of guns, which he began to do right after the article appeared. Perhaps it also convinced him, as Time’s editors were convinced, that it would not be his fault, but the gun’s fault — an argument that is strangely compelling to mental patients.

The eternally fascinating question about mass murder is never the means. It is the psychosis behind the desire to do it. We don’t need to know details about the guns, booby traps, bombs or fire starters. There will always be a way to commit mass murder. We want to know why.

But that is precisely the information these grandstanders in the media seek to withhold from the public with the pompous justification that they don’t want to give the presumed killer attention. For once, the media could deliver information that is both fascinating and potentially useful: What created James Holmes?

But many in the media have taken it on themselves to censor the news as their personal act of retaliation. Not making James Holmes famous — even famously evil — is what people who make their living on TV see as the cruelest punishment they can inflict.

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