“What Mass Killers Want—And How to Stop Them”

November 10th, 2013

This essay in Saturday’s WSJ has so many important points about the nature of mass killings, that I encourage you to read the entire thing.

First, the essay highlights what I have referred to as the “template” of the mass shooting.

Someday soon, we are likely to awake to news of yet another rampage shooting, one that perhaps will rival the infamous events at Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora and Newtown. As unknowable as the when and who and where of the next tragedy is the certainty that there will be one, and of what will follow: The tense initial hours as we watch the body count tick higher. The ashen-faced news anchors with pictures of stricken families. Stories and images of the fatal minutes. Reports on the shooter’s journals and manifestos. A weary speech from the president. Debates about guns and mental health.

Second, after these killings there is an innate effort of trying to make sense of what happened.

Underlying this grim national ritual, and the pronouncements from all quarters that mass shootings are “senseless,” is the disturbing feeling that these acts are beyond our understanding. As the criminologist and forensic psychiatrist Park Dietz writes, we talk about these acts as if they arise from “alien forces.” So we focus our efforts on thwarting future mass shooters—catching them through the mental health system, or making it harder for them to get guns, or making it easier for others with guns to stop them. Some enterprising minds have even suggested that schoolchildren be trained to gang-rush them.

This is fruitless as these tragic killings are perpetrated by people who do not play according to our rules, and our norms of civilization.

We call mass shootings senseless not only because of the gross disregard for life but because they defy the ordinary motives for violence—robbery, envy, personal grievance—reasons we can condemn but at least wrap our minds around. But mass killings seem like a plague dispatched from some inhuman realm. They don’t just ignore our most basic ideas of justice but assault them directly.

The perverse truth is that this senselessness is just the point of mass shootings: It is the means by which the perpetrator seeks to make us feel his hatred. Like terrorists, mass shooters can be seen, in a limited sense, as rational actors, who know that if they follow the right steps they will produce the desired effect in the public consciousness.

The most salient portion of the essay focuses on the negative role the media plays. By sensationalizing these killings, they create fodder for future assailants.

Part of this calculus of evil is competition. Dr. Mullen spoke to a perpetrator who “gleefully admitted that he was ‘going for the record.’ ” Investigators found that the Newtown shooter kept a “score sheet” of previous mass shootings. He may have deliberately calculated how to maximize the grotesqueness of his act.

Many other perpetrators pay obsessive attention to previous massacres. There is evidence for a direct line of influence running through some of the most notorious shooters—from Columbine in 1999 to Virginia Tech in 2007 to Newtown in 2012—including their explicit references to previous massacres and calls to inspire future anti-heroes.

The essay notes a program done in Austria to take attention away from broadcasts of suicides. This effort resulted in a large decrease in the number of suicides.

Some researchers have even put the theory to the test. In 1984, a rash of suicides broke out on the subway system in Vienna. As the death toll climbed, a group of researchers at the Austrian Association for Suicide Prevention theorized that sensational reporting was inadvertently glorifying the suicides. Three years into the epidemic, the researchers persuaded local media to change their coverage by minimizing details and photos, avoiding romantic language and simplistic explanations of motives, moving the stories from the front page and keeping the word “suicide” out of the headlines. Subway suicides promptly dropped by 75%.

This approach has been recommended by numerous public health and media organizations world-wide, from the U.K., Australia, Norway and Hong Kong to the U.S., where in 2001 a similar set of reporting guidelines was released jointly by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institute of Mental Health and the surgeon general. It is difficult to say whether these guidelines have helped, since journalists’ adherence to them has been scattered at best, but they might still serve as a basis for changing the reporting of massacres.

The essay offers several suggestions that the media can take to minimize attention towards these shootings.

  • Never publish a shooter’s propaganda.
  • Hide their names and faces.
  • Don’t report on biography or speculate on motive.
  • Minimize specifics and gory details.
  • No photos or videos of the event.
  • Talk about the victims but minimize images of grieving families.
  • Decrease the saturation. Return the smaller shootings to the realm of local coverage and decrease the amount of reporting on the rest. Unsettling as it sounds, treating these acts as more ordinary crimes could actually make them less ordinary.

This last one is so important. There are so many more killings we never hear about because they aren’t dubbed “code red” by the media, and go sensational. Like the shooting at the barber shop in Detroit. Or 12 people shot this weekend in Chicago (hear about that?). If the media was even borderline responsible, all deaths would take equal precedence. Not the deaths that people can “relate” to.

For those worried about freedom of the press, it is fairly common for the press not to report on details of sexual crimes. These should be treated in a similar fashion.

Even in the U.S., with our fierce commitment to a free and open press, there are precedents for voluntary media restrictions. Courts and journalists usually recognize an overriding public interest in protecting the privacy of sexual assault victims and minors involved in crimes, and sometimes even the reputations of the accused. Safety, too, can trump the public right to know. Few media outlets would publish the instructions for making a bomb. Promulgating the template for rampage shootings is in similar need of restriction.

I will be sure to work these thoughts into my upcoming talk at a Conneticut Law Review symposium on the 2nd Amendment, and the resulting symposium essay.