Monday, November 11, 2013

Rampage Killings And Media Complicity

What the media tends to call "mass shootings" are more appropriately called "rampage shootings" according to a review article by Ari Schulman in the Wall Street Journal. Far from being senseless murders as the media and politicians characterize them, they are a "kind of theater" whose purpose is terrorism minus the political agenda.
Mass shooters aim to tell a story through their actions. They create a narrative about how the world has forced them to act, and then must persuade themselves to believe it. The final step is crafting the story for others and telling it through spoken warnings beforehand, taunting words to victims or manifestos created for public airing.

What these findings suggest is that mass shootings are a kind of theater. Their purpose is essentially terrorism—minus, in most cases, a political agenda. The public spectacle, the mass slaughter of mostly random victims, is meant to be seen as an attack against society itself. The typical consummation of the act in suicide denies the course of justice, giving the shooter ultimate and final control.

We call mass shootings senseless not only because of the gross disregard for life but because they defy the ordinary motives for violence—robbery, envy, personal grievance—reasons we can condemn but at least wrap our minds around. But mass killings seem like a plague dispatched from some inhuman realm. They don't just ignore our most basic ideas of justice but assault them directly.

The perverse truth is that this senselessness is just the point of mass shootings: It is the means by which the perpetrator seeks to make us feel his hatred. Like terrorists, mass shooters can be seen, in a limited sense, as rational actors, who know that if they follow the right steps they will produce the desired effect in the public consciousness.
Moreover, rampage killers tend to be competitive. They want their acts to be more violent and more destructive with more casualties than previous mass shootings.They use as their template for planning their acts the media reports of prior rampage killings according to researchers who have studied it.

Schulman says that rather than try to understand what motivated individual killers in Tucson or Newtown or Aurora, treating it as a contagion or epidemic allows us to find ways to disrupt the spread. Research into suicide and the role of the media in covering it gives some suggestions on how to disrupt it.

The major thing is that the killer needs to be deprived of an audience. They crave the attention that their acts will get from the mass media. It is one of the reasons that I make a conscious effort in this blog to never publish the name of the shooters in mass killings. I may refer to them as "the shooter" or "the murderer" but I refuse to give them the publicity that they craved.

Schulman has a list of suggestions for the media and the police.

  • Never publish the shooter's propaganda
  • Hide their names and faces
  • Don't report on biography or speculate on motive
  • Minimize specifics and gory details
  • No photos or videos of the event
  • Talk about the victims but minimize images of grieving families
  • Decrease the saturation
  • Tell a different story
While I don't agree with Schulman's conclusions regarding firearms, all in all this is an excellent article that needs to be read. As Schulman concludes, "If we can deprive him of the ability to make his internal psychodrama a shared public reality, if we can break this ritual of violence and our own ritual response, then we might just banish these dreadful and all too frequent acts to the realm of vile fantasy."

The full article can be found here.


  1. I certainly don't agree with Schulman's casual assertions that there should be almost no guns in private hands, but otherwise, this is a really good article that more people--especially, more journalists--should read.

  2. The "Copycat Effect" is well known. The media hates it and does not want to talk about it.


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