A pos­si­ble way to stop mass shoot­ings: De­prive the killers of me­dia cov­er­age

The Buffalo News - - OPINION - Wash­ing­ton Post Writ­ers Group

What makes a man walk into a house of wor­ship and slaugh­ter in­no­cents un­der the eyes of God? We should per­haps be grate­ful that we’ll never re­ally un­der­stand it; glad that the or­di­nary hu­man mind can­not even imag­ine the urge to­ward such wan­ton bru­tal­ity.

All we can re­ally do is grieve with the fam­i­lies of the 49 peo­ple who lost their lives Fri­day in the mass shoot­ings at two New Zealand mosques – and, of course, ask our­selves what we can do to en­sure that the rare evil so­ciopaths who can con­ceive such de­sires never get a chance to carry them out.

If the at­tack had hap­pened in the United States, the con­ver­sa­tion would have quickly turned to gun con­trol. But New Zealand al­ready has a gun-con­trol regime that is much stricter than any­thing pro­posed in the wake of Amer­i­can mass shoot­ings. Un­doubt­edly it will get stricter still, and per­haps this will make some mar­ginal dif­fer­ence. But that will still leave us ask­ing “What else can we do?”

There is an an­swer to that ques­tion, but it is un­com­fort­able, and per­haps un­work­able: Stop pub­li­ciz­ing mass shoot­ings.

Ev­ery time a mass shoot­ing makes the news, the news me­dia are quick to hunt for root causes. Co­in­ci­den­tally, these al­most al­ways mir­ror the re­porters’ and edi­tors’ ide­o­log­i­cal pre­oc­cu­pa­tions: gun-con­trol laws and gun cul­ture, the in­ad­e­quacy of re­sources for treat­ing men­tal-health prob­lems, Is­lamic fun­da­men­tal­ism or white na­tion­al­ism, the alien­ation of young men cast adrift in mod­ern so­ci­ety. Strangely, the me­dia’s own role in per­pet­u­at­ing this un­holy cy­cle of vi­o­lence sel­dom comes up.

It’s long been known that acts of vi­o­lence in­spire copy­cats, and the more the mur­ders cap­ture the pub­lic’s at­ten­tion, the more copy­cats they can and will in­spire. Many mass shoot­ers have been in­spired by the me­dia trail left be­hind by ear­lier psy­chopaths. They pore over the end­less video record, the lengthy pro­files, the anx­ious chat­ter on so­cial me­dia. And in­stead of be­ing sick­ened by the car­nage, they’re at­tracted to what it of­fers them: power over cow­er­ing vic­tims; a face and a name that in­spire ter­ror in mil­lions; an in­fa­mous legacy.

Many com­men­ta­tors, won­der­ing why mass shoot­ings be­came so com­mon in the late 20th cen­tury, have pointed to var­i­ous cul­tural and eco­nomic de­vel­op­ments. They might bet­ter have pointed to cable news, which en­sured that dis­af­fected losers with hy­per­tro­phied egos and shriv­eled souls be­came the non-stop talk of the na­tion – in ev­ery na­tion, and most of the world’s 6,500 lan­guages. The wall-to-wall cov­er­age teaches men who may not be able to get a job or a girl­friend that none­the­less, in some­thing un­der an hour, they can be­come Genghis Khan.

And when they pick up a gun and turn them­selves into a one-man bar­bar­ian horde, we in the me­dia rush in with the cam­eras, the pro­files and the non-stop com­men­tary that will in­evitably in­spire some fu­ture At­tila the Hun.

No mat­ter your opin­ions about gun con­trol, or fund­ing men­tal-health treat­ment, or soft­en­ing the anomie of the mod­ern world, here’s an in­ter­ven­tion to con­sider: Stop giv­ing them what they want.

Don’t watch their videos, or even speak their names. Me­dia com­pa­nies should de­cline to give their hor­ri­ble crimes ex­ten­sive cov­er­age, and au­di­ences should de­cline to con­sume it. Give their atroc­i­ties no more at­ten­tion than a high­way car wreck, and let their deeds dis­ap­pear onto two col­umn inches on page A24 of the news­pa­per or, bet­ter yet, into the tran­scripts of an un­re­marked court trial.

In other words, let’s pre­tend it’s not hap­pen­ing: While the ax­ioms against ig­nor­ing ele­phants in the liv­ing room may be gen­er­ally wise, this is the rare case where strate­gic obliv­i­ous­ness might ac­tu­ally cause the beast to leave, or at least visit much less of­ten.

There are, of course, many ob­jec­tions to this idea. One is that re­fus­ing to cover these shoot­ings as the ma­jor out­rages they are would slight the mem­o­ries of the vic­tims. An­other is that in Amer­ica, at least, it would de­prive ac­tivists against gun vi­o­lence of a mes­sage that’s an ef­fec­tive tool in gal­va­niz­ing pub­lic opin­ion. Then there’s the prob­lem that, given mod­ern com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nol­ogy, it might be im­pos­si­ble to mount a suc­cess­ful tacit con­spir­acy against the bar­bar­ians.

I don’t dis­miss any of these ob­jec­tions; all are valid, and per­haps over­whelm­ing. But I will ob­serve that we should do ev­ery­thing we can think of to stop mass shoot­ings, and what we’ve done so far ob­vi­ously haven’t worked as well as we’d hoped. If we want to pre­vent the un­think­able, we need to be will­ing to at least think about the merely un­com­fort­able.

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