I still remember where I was when I heard that the student who committed the Virginia Tech massacre had released a press packet including a video, a manifesto and photos of himself holding various weapons.
I was just leaving a TV studio (having spoken about something else). Bursting with anger, I asked one of the producers if I could use his computer and posted on the web an urgent plea to NBC News (the organization that had first received the packet): "Don't publish it!"
They did, of course. And so did every other news outlet. The killer's picture, his disordered thoughts and his resentments were aired for days and weeks.
Still, there does seem to be one factor at work in most of the cases that make headlines. From the Columbine killers to the Virginia Tech slayer, from the Finnish murderer to Delaware State, the destroyers seem to have one thing in common: All seek fame.
They may know they are going to die. They may plan to kill themselves at the end of a murderous spree or hope to be gunned down by police. But they also know their names, their faces and in some cases (like the Unabomber and the Virginia Tech killer) their causes will become world famous.
Americans worship fame as some ancient cultures once worshipped idols. People will do and say nearly anything to get on television. Whole genres of TV programming — the misnamed "reality TV" shows — are based on this lust for fame among otherwise sane Americans.
And the distinction between fame and infamy becomes more eroded with each passing day. For disturbed and mentally unstable people, fame must seem to be success. They cannot achieve anything else, but they can be famous.
What can be done? This is not a job for the state. This is a matter for the press. What is desperately needed is just a modicum of public spiritedness by television, radio and print journalists. In Washington, D.C., radio talk show host Chris Core has publicly pleaded with broadcasters to simply refrain from using the names or faces of killers. He is so right.
Would it be that difficult? There is no law currently forbidding newspapers and TV stations from publishing the identities of alleged rape victims. This is a journalistic convention, nothing more. (It might be a good idea to withhold the identities of accused rapists as well until after a verdict of guilty.)
If there is a shooting at a school or whatever, by all means report it. Simply omit the name of the alleged killer, omit the interviews with his neighbors ("he seemed quiet, kept to himself"), and by all means leave his philosophy, religious ideas, Goth clothing style and all other personal details on the cutting-room floor.
Perhaps then we will deny oxygen to this terrible fire.
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