The Media and Mass Murder

The suicide note Robert Hawkins left behind—"Now I'll be famous," he reportedly wrote—is chilling, but not as chilling as survivors' accounts of what he did to secure his place in the headlines. Hawkins shot himself in the back of the head in an Omaha shopping mall Wednesday after gunning down eight strangers with an AK-47 assault rifle. The 19-year-old had recently been dumped by his girlfriend and fired from his job at McDonald's, though friends say he had been troubled for some time.

The massacre in the middle of a mall at the height of the Christmas shopping rush catapulted the story onto front pages across the country and into constant cable TV rotation. Some experts say that's just what he would have wanted. Jack Levin, a criminologist at Northeastern University, has spent his life studying spree killers like Hawkins. He wrote a book titled "Mass Murder: America's Growing Menace" in 1985, and recently chaired a panel convened in Seattle to investigate what led a 26-year-old man to walk into an after-hours party and shoot to death six people, including one as young as 14, as they socialized after a rave. Levin spoke with NEWSWEEK's Suzanne Smalley about what motivates these killers—and why the media too may have blood on its hands.

NEWSWEEK: What characteristics are unique to the type of killer who walks into a mall and murders strangers?
Jack Levin:
First of all, the shopping mall episode in Omaha was very rare. Actually, it's the rarest form of mass murder.

How rare?
Every year in this country there are no more than 20 mass killings involving four or more victims. Almost half of them are family annihilations. Maybe another 30 percent are workplace homicides … About 20 percent—about four or five massacres—are committed against absolute strangers in places like shopping malls. It's very unusual for the killer to open fire on strangers. He's much more likely to be selective in his choice of victims. He chooses those individuals he perceives as part of the conspiracy against him, so in this case I would have predicted that the killer in Omaha would have opened fire on his boss or the supervisor that had fired him, or maybe on his girlfriend because she had rejected him. Instead he went on a suicidal rampage against all of humankind. The notion of just indiscriminately killing people you don't even know indicates there was some kind of mental illness in play. The more indiscriminate the massacre, the more likely it is that mental illness plays a part.

He also allegedly said, "Now I'll be famous." What are you thoughts on that?
Well, I hate to say it, but it shouldn't surprise us that the killer sought fame. Sadly, we give these mass killers exactly what they want. We put them on the cover of celebrity magazines. I'm not talking about NEWSWEEK. I'm talking about celebrity magazines where we used to place entertainers, sports figures—and now we put killers. [NEWSWEEK has, in fact, published photos of mass killers, including Timothy McVeigh and Andrew Cunanan, on its cover.] … The point is we place these killers where we used to put virtuous people. Now we put villains there. It's not just that they're newsworthy. It's that they become antiheroes, celebrities because of the crimes that they commit. We send the wrong message to our youngsters, and it's very simple: "You want to be famous, you want to get a lot of publicity, you want to feel important and powerful and dominant and in control of things? Fine, kill somebody, and while you're at it kill a lot of people, because then you'll definitely make the 11 o'clock news and you'll be on every cable news program in existence."

Hypothetically, if there were to be a media blackout on publishing these killers' pictures and their writings, or videotapes of them, do you think there would be fewer of these types of killings?
It would definitely help. After the Virginia Tech massacre, NBC released the photographs [of killer Seung-Hui Cho]. I wasn't so concerned about the rambling, incoherent, insane manifesto that was left by Cho. But to release the photographs of him in which he was portrayed as a dangerous and powerful individual, someone who simply couldn't be ignored—he was shown with a gun at his head and a gun at the audience's head—to release these photos and to see them distributed widely, concerned me. Because I think we gave the killer what he was after. This feeling of importance that he never had before. Instead of being humiliated on a daily basis since the eighth grade, he finally got what he wanted. He wanted to be a big shot. [NBC defended its decision to air the footage in the face of condemnation from the victims' families and a public outcry. But the network subsequently curtailed its use of the pictures, broadcasting them on a far more limited basis.]

And then, a couple of months later, Robert Hawkins is saying, "Now I'll be famous."
Why would it surprise us? Let me explain, going back a little bit. Typically, a mass killer is a middle-aged man. He's in his 30s, 40s, or 50s and at the very time of his life when he feels he should be reaching the pinnacle of success, he's instead floundering. And that's part of the motivation for his suicidal rampage. But all of a sudden lately we're seeing young people commit these hideous crimes that were formerly associated with middle age. And what has happened is this: if one person is killed in a local community the story is important and it is a tragedy, but it is also a local story. It doesn't get national press. But when 32 people are killed by a mass murderer, when eight people are killed in a shopping mall, it becomes a national story and it's covered widely. So 25 years ago a young person … who was being bullied or whose life was miserable might be inspired by the kids down the block or someone on the next street. Now young people are being inspired by what happens in West Paducah or Jonesboro or what was the name of that town in Alaska? Bethel. There was a massacre there as well. One of the school shooters was there, Evan Ramsey. He killed two people. [Ramsey was convicted as an adult of two counts of murder and was sentenced to two 99-year terms.] But a town of 500 that almost no one had ever heard of before all of a sudden had become the inspiration for some bullied youngster or some guy who's working at a McDonald's and has no hope for his future, who's been rejected by his girlfriend, who gets fired at work, has nothing going for himself, maybe has no friends. He can be a big shot for the first time, using what happened a thousand miles away or maybe 3,000 miles away as a role model for his own behavior.

Should the media consider censoring itself?
The media have not only a right but a responsibility to inform the public. This is, after all, a huge story just by virtue of the large body count alone. Not to mention that these were strangers who had no relationship to the killer. They were minding their own business and what did they get for it? Death by gunfire. So, it's an important story and it needs to be told … However, what we don't want to do is to give these murders excessive attention. And we also don't want to make these villains into victims by delving into every detail of their biographies, showing how they suffered as children, how they were abused and abandoned and neglected and sexually stimulated by a parent or adopted under terrible circumstances. Then we just play right into it by reducing the culpability of the killer … The second thing is we don't want to put them in positions where we glamorize and romanticize them … I find it very dangerous to place them in positions where we put celebrities. Most of the school shootings that we remember, especially the ones that happened in middle and high schools, occurred from 1996 through 2001. And then after September 11, 2001, for a period of time we had almost no school shootings in this country. Why? Well, the answer is for a period of time we switched, we refocused our attention away from the school shootings and toward the war on terror, thereby robbing the copycat of its influence in providing publicity for young people who wanted to feel important and to get some attention from the media.