Politics

Sometimes You Need to Say the Killer's Name

The case for talking about murderers

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Charles Cooke reacts to this morning's murders in Roanoke:

Portrait of a killer

I have long argued that the best thing that Americans can do in such circumstances is to decline to indulge these people. Don't name them. Don't watch or read their output. Unless there is an active search ongoing, don't show their picture. Mass murderers tend to plan ahead. Usually, they think in detail about how their acts will be perceived. Watching as other killers are plastered all over the news—often for weeks on end—only encourages them further.

We now live in a world in which it is possible to kill a person and then to post a high-definition film of the murder a few moments later. Because Twitter and Facebook are effectively "on demand," anybody who wishes to can implicate themselves in the game. Good people have some responsibility to refuse to do so. We are now in the age of social media. Walter Cronkite isn't deciding for you any more. You are.

While I don't ultimately agree with Cooke here, I appreciate what he's saying. I don't doubt that there are people who kill out of a desire for notoriety, and it is possible that they'll feel encouraged if they see a crime like this go viral. And in any event, the fact that a video of a murder exists does not oblige you to watch it or to share it with your friends. The consumption of snuff films is not compulsory.

But is there really any plausible scenario where people don't talk about this killer? I mean, I'd love to live in a world where crime coverage stresses the ordinary over the unusual, one where people aren't trained to confuse the country's most grotesque events with threats they're at a real risk of encountering. I'd love to live in a world where cruelty isn't rewarded with fame, one where reporters can explore what makes a killer tick without turning him into a celebrity in the process. But I know damn well that the grotesque stuff is interesting, that it frequently speaks to larger concerns, and that people—including me—are bound to discuss it.

In this case, the murderer's manifesto describes his assault as revenge for the Charleston church massacre, and that makes this a development in a larger story people are already discussing. And even if the Charleston angle turns out to be a ripped-from-the-headlines excuse tacked onto a grudge-driven workplace slaying, the fact will remain that these murders happened live on television and were also recorded by the shooter himself, who then posted his footage to Facebook and Twitter while he was on the run. Elements of that have happened before—we've had violent deaths on TV, we've had criminals taping their misdeeds—but the full package is new, and it feels like a psychotic science-fiction story. That alone guarantees that people are going to talk about this.

And people should talk about it, because it's wrapped up with genuinely important issues. (To offer a small but not trivial example: Twitter and Facebook are surely reviewing their decision to adopt autostarting videos, now that many people found themselves unexpectedly watching graphic crime footage. Apparently, sometimes a snuff film is compulsory.) It's hard to imagine a world where those conversations do not cover the killer's life and grievances.

Can you do all that without saying the killer's name? Well, I've avoided mentioning it here. But in the larger media universe, as opposed to a narrow blog post, it's better to have more information available, not less. It's hard to have an informed discussion of what happened if you don't know who the murderer is, what his motives were, and how he carried out his crime; and it's hard for anyone to add important information to what we already know if the most basic identifying info isn't there. When you share that data, you haven't decided to "indulge these people." You've decided to inform the public.