The Numbing Routine of Responding to Mass Killings

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Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin, center, speaks at a news conference in Roseburg, Oregon, on October 2. Chris Harper-Mercer, the man killed by police on Thursday after he fatally shot nine people at a community college, was a shy, awkward 26-year-old fascinated with shootings, according to neighbors, a person who knew him, news reports and his own social media postings. Steve Dipaola/Reuters

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

The ConversationAll killers are Norman Bates—antisocial mama’s boys.

Or so the news media tell us in their instant profiles of the gunmen who shoot up schools, churches, military bases and other public places.

The latest addition to this sorry lineup is the 26-year-old who killed 10 students at Umpqua Community College (UCC) in Oregon on Thursday. The New York Times described the suspect as a “recluse” who was “close to his mother.”

The Washington Post said he was “a quiet, withdrawn young man who struggled to connect with other people.”

Acquaintances, according to the Post, found him “anxious or nervous,” “bashful and timid,” “skittish,” “a little odd” and so on.

For the Post’s reporters these “scraps of information” created a “murky” picture of the shooter that didn’t add up—as if the motives and personality of a mass murderer should be readily apparent less than 24 hours after a mass shooting.

How commonplace are these instant portraits? And is the media doing its job responsibly in making them?

Stuck in a Cycle

  • The man who killed 22 people in a cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, in 1991 was “a frightening loner” who lived with his mother.
  • The student who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007 was “a loner who avoided eye contact.”
  • The 24-year-old who killed 12 people at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, in 2012 was “a shy guy…a loner.”
  • The 20-year-old who killed 26 at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012 was “heartbreakingly shy.” He, too, lived with his mother.
  • The 21-year-old who killed nine people at Emanuel AME Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina, last June was “universally described as a quiet loner.”

How well do the neighbors and classmates who are called upon to provide these snap personality assessments actually know the suspect? Perhaps the future gunman failed to smile or offer a friendly greeting during a chance encounter in the parking lot or the driveway or the hallway.

If so, these instant profiles might tell us more about how we Americans like to see ourselves than about the perpetrators themselves. In our culture, smiles bespeak warmth and happiness. A person who does not smile, conversely, is presumed to be unfriendly and troubled, though he may only be shy, especially if he is a teenage boy or a young man.

Also suspect, in hindsight, are such attributes as a shaved head, divorced parents and a preference for military clothing, horror films and goth music, though countless teens come from similar backgrounds and exhibit similar fondness for such pop culture offerings.

The portrait of the killer is but one component of the invariable sequence activated by a shooting rampage. There is also the coverage of the incident itself, highlighted by quotes from the terrorized witnesses, the community vigil, the calls for gun control, the rejection of the “politicization” of the issue by those opposed to gun control and, as President Barack Obama acknowledged, the leaders expressing their sorrow and support.

The coverage has begun to seem generated , as if one could simply key in the facts of a specific case and a software application could spit out the stories without human agency. Far from helping matters, the stories reinforce the sense that we are stuck in a cycle from which there is no escape.

Feeding the Copycat Effect?

In not naming the UCC killer or any of the gunmen whose crimes I recalled above, I am heeding Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin, who declined to name the UCC shooter and urged journalists to do the same. “We encourage you not to glorify and create sensationalism for him,” he said. “He in no way deserves this.”

Reporters mostly ignored him. Indeed, many of the news stories quoted or paraphrased the sheriff saying he did not want to name the shooter but omitted his appeal to the news media.

The stories that attempt to get inside the head of the killer are understandable to a point. Tales of villainy (and heroism—the shootings at UCC gave us both, once the actions of shooting victim Chris Mintz came to light) are the ultimate human interest stories. We have all been angry. We can all imagine snapping. What drives some people over the edge?

Then there’s the copycat effect: the possibility that the glorification and sensationalism Hanlin referred to might inspire the next ghastly incident. As much as school shootings appear to be epidemic, research shows that they’re like shark attacks—still so rare that the fear is arguably out of all proportion to the threat.

But any is too many, and it is hard to dismiss the effect of media coverage apparent in a blog post purportedly from the UCC shooter—and quoted in the same Washington Post story that struggles to assemble a coherent portrait of him. Referring to the television journalist who killed two of his former colleagues in Virginia in August, the UCC shooter wrote:

I have noticed that so many people like him are all alone and unknown, yet when they spill a little blood, the whole world knows who they are. A man who was known by no one, is now known by everyone. His face splashed across every screen, his name across the lips of every person on the planet, all in the course of one day. Seems the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.

The Post’s reporters gave no indication that these words gave them pause.

Russell Frank is an associate professor of communications at Pennsylvania State University.

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