Must we put their names in lights (again)?

Some things never change. When I saw the coverage of the recent Virginia killings, I was reminded of this January 2011 post on related matters.

Must we put their names in lights?

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.

3 thoughts on “Must we put their names in lights (again)?”

  1. Keith is right: when we focus on the victims, such crimes are outrages not tragedies. We can use "tragedy" of the self-destruction of the perpetrators by conspiracy theories and fantasies of heroic avenging violence. There is no problem in identifying the enabling Iagos.

  2. I think this very common response to this kind of tragedy is misguided, and is a result in part of frustration with the fact that we aren't going to deal with the actual causes. This response also seems based on a certain sensible disgust with the killers and their motivations, and a laudable distrust of the voyeuristic impulse that impels people to follow cases like this closely.

    But I don't think ignoring these killers would make much, if any, difference, and I think the urge to suppress news as a method of solving problems is generally unwise.

    Bryce Williams seemed primarily interested in making an impression on his former co-workers. Certainly there are many, many killings that are premeditated and senseless that are clearly aimed at sending a message to survivors, even without the national news intervening.

    And if some killers are motivated by publicity, then an effort to suppress news about atrocities could just as easily lead to criminals planning bigger, less ignorable crimes.

    Ignore them and they'll go away is, as a matter of public policy, generally poor advice for dealing with those who seek public acknowledgment. Ask Donald Trump supporters about this. It's true that this approach was largely successful for many decades for the opponents of African Americans in this country, but it took a lot of work, it deformed society, and the results were very bad. In the Reality-Based Community, we're supposed to seek information about matters of public import.

    Williams' views are, in any sensible world, news. Norway does much better than we do at preventing mass murder, but that country's media fully aired the grievances of Anders Breivik, as was proper and appropriate.

  3. I think the relevant "we" have their reasons, and making sure that events that can sell papers and attract eyes to the evening news happen less often isn't among them. Variants of the "some asshole initiative" have been proposed for decades, the media never have any interest in playing along.

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