Must we put his name in lights?

I can’t prove what I believe: If we stopped rewarding mass murderers with the mass publicity they crave, we might have somewhat fewer of these atrocities.

I haven’t posted much on the Arizona killings. The enormity of the tragedy demands a respectful silence, unless one actually has something useful to say. Most everything constructive I would say has already been said by someone else with greater force than I would muster.

I would mention again the importance of long-term care and rehabilitative medicine. The typical 9mm bullet is quite adequate to lacerate human body parts, sometimes beyond repair. Every day, thousands of doctors, nurses, physical therapists, try to repair these lacerating wounds, and try to repair over months and years the human lives lacerated by such gun violence. Most of these men and women labor in relative obscurity. I happen to be away delivering a talk at a VA facility where some of these professionals do their work. Their faces rarely grace the front page of your local newspaper. There just isn’t the space to honor everyone who deserves it.

I’ll bet that your local newspaper found the space for this crazed mug shot of Jared Lee Loughner, the disturbed young man who apparently committed mass murder. He’s gotten his fifteen minutes, which I suspect is what he really wanted: to see his name and his picture in lights.

Can we not do that?

Much in our popular culture—from Silence of the Lambs, to Nancy Grace, ironically, to the death penalty itself—creates in some people an enticing motive for atrocity. Shoot someone famous, and you’ll end up an (anti) celebrity, on the cover of People or Newsweek. That’s a heck of a lot easier than finding the cure for AIDS, winning an NBA championship or “Dancing with the Stars,” not to mention accomplishing the intricate repair of brain tissue damaged by a 9mm round.

I wish there were a way to shun mass murderers the way we shun grimy child molesters. We should know who they are. The police, forensic experts, and the court system should do what they need to do. Yet I wish we lived in a world in which the rest of us gave this necessary work a little more distance and private space, in which it’s considered rather distasteful, even disgusting to publicize without some very good reason the little people who commit huge crimes.

I can’t prove what I believe. If we stopped rewarding these criminals with the massive publicity, we might have somewhat fewer of these atrocities.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

12 thoughts on “Must we put his name in lights?”

  1. Thanks–I was perfectly disgusted with the NY Times this morning (large photo above the fold). I can't believe that having, instead, a 1-column B&W photo on the inside pages would have cut their


  2. Thank you, so totally cosigned.

    But from the first moment I saw the photo on TPM though, I knew it was going to be like this. The mugshot is so perfectly terrifying, it's like it fell out of the grisliest of true crime stories (which it essentially did). Our news culture is not known for its tact or restraint to begin with, so how on earth could they resist this one?

    Police departments need to do mugshots like the DMV does driver's license photos: No glamor, thanks.

  3. Absolutely. And never gonna happen. "If it bleeds, it leads.", the news people pray for these rare events, and make heroes of their perpetrators.

  4. I don't know that "hero" is quite the word; but "celebrity" for sure. I always appreciated the way Scorsese examined this in "King of Comedy". I don't know if there's a way around this. It's our fault collectively.

  5. I agree too. It is the same with terrorism stories. I have been trying to come up with a less pleasant word to use instead of "mastermind," which sounds too much like a compliment. We can reprogram ourselves on this is we try hard enough.

    And anyone who attacks unarmed civilians *is* a coward, even if s/he dies in the process.

    But, I thought the photo of the Tucson guy just looked crazy. This is much more a story about mental health than anything else.

  6. the news people pray for these rare events

    A slanderous assertion, and one I know for a fact to not be true.

  7. Phil is right. News people do not pray for these things to happen. The people who run news corporations will, however, ride them into the ground to sell advertising. Sometimes even much to the disgust of the news people who report on them.

  8. I can think of one relatively modest example where such a shunning strategy is implemented in our society: people who invade the playing field during televised sporting events. The networks and other powers that be have learned to keep them off camera and so eliminate or minimize their self-aggrandizement, to avoid encouraging like-minded others. In the higher stakes of political murderers, the issues are harder, but perhaps news media decision makers should think about it.

  9. Speaking as a mental health professional, there are few things more motivating to some people with psychotic spectrum disorders than the thought that they will be famous and important, even for a moment. The coverage of this individual and the individual at Virginia Tech help make the next horrible incident more likely.

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