In a time when perpetrators of mass violence have taken to delineating their motives in writing, it is easy to understand why governments and media outlets might want to restrain access to them. A prevalent attitude toward modern acts of mass violence is to console the victims, and then consider legislation to prevent another attack. However, limiting this responsive focus to the victims and not publicly scrutinizing the behavior of perpetrators places everyone at serious risk.
For example, criminologist Adam Lankford suggests that giving focus to mass shooters inspires future attacks. “[I]t creates a kind of competition for mass shooters to maximize the number of victims they kill. The second is that it’s rewarding these offenders with fame and attention, which is often what they want – it serves to give them a legacy. Even if they die, they may be remembered, according to their distorted views, as someone who mattered, as a somebody rather than a nobody,” Lankford stated (Journalist’s Resource, ““Don’t name them” – Criminologist asks journalists to help stop mass shootings,’” 12.20.2017).
However, when we restrict attention to mass shooters, we fail to fully recognize the immediate, pointed threat presented to our communities at large. When minorities are the specific targets of white supremacists and homophobic religious extremists—as was the case in the recent Christchurch shooting—ignoring the shooters and their agendas allows the unaffected majority to ignore the threats facing these communities altogether.
This is not to say that refusing to give attention to shooters and their manifestos is necessarily an act of ignorant cowardice. For example, specialists from the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) Center at Texas State University went into great detail explaining why the names of mass shooters should remain hidden. According to their website, the law enforcement experts reference the “Contagion Effect,” which links the publicized notoriety of mass shootings to copycat acts of violence (Texas State University, “Don’t Name Them”).
Physicist and statistician Sherry Towers corroborates this finding, explaining that the spread of violent ideation acts as a disease. She explained, “With a disease, you usually need close contact to spread it to someone else. In this case, the news media act as a “vector” that can transmit the infection across a very large area” (ASU Now, “Q&A: Sherry Towers on the contagion effect of mass shootings,” 10.5.2015).
There is certainly legitimacy in the claim that public ignorance of the shooter’s entire identity can reduce the frequency of senseless violence—but only to a degree.
Not every shooting happens randomly or as a result of copycats seeking fame. We have so far witnessed many acts of violence heavily entrenched in extremist ideologies emphatic on targeting an “other.” The data shows that the majority of shooters are white men who aim to kill non-white targets (The Philadelphia Tribune, “Majority of mass shootings carried out by white men,” 2.23.2018). In the cases of the Pulse Nightclub shooting and the recent Christchurch shooting, the targets were often members of the LGBTQ+ or Muslim communities.
When the media and general public write off white mass murderers as insane, they effectively hide the insidious yet calculated ideologies compelling these murderers, allowing their viewpoints to fester. As a result, unaffected communities are at risk of purposefully blinding themselves to the impending violence against their neighbors of a different creed, sexuality or gender.
Moreover, when the media censors manifestos, as is the case in many news articles that paraphrase extremist documents but fail to cite them, the public is kept in the dark about the malicious forces at play. In addition, readers have to rely on the inherently biased summaries of journalists for information, losing the chance to arrive at their own conclusions regarding the tragedies that took place.
Therefore, the danger is perhaps not in ignoring the names of mass shooters but in ignoring their ideologies. We must not turn a blind eye to the manifestos of these killers, because they give us the opportunity to actively study these ideologies in order to attack the root of the problem.
Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad is of the same conviction. She goes as far as to argue that we should, in fact, focus on the persons behind the slaughter, so as to humanize them. She stated, “I believed [Oslo shooter Anders Behring Breivik] was more dangerous as a symbol and less of an inspiration when seen with all his human failings … People like Mr. Breivik and Mr. Tarrant spread myths and conspiracies dressed up as facts … We need to expose the ideas and the lives of these white supremacists. Only then can we dissect them properly” (The New York Times, “The Anatomy of White Terror,” 3.18.2019).
This dissection captures exactly this type of well-intended censorship prevents. Reducing the perception of potential shooters to mere copycats is just as dangerous as reducing the motives of white gunmen to insanity. Doing so euphemizes the ever-lingering pestilence of white supremacy and allows white nationalists’ less-violent counterparts to wash their hands of responsibility for violence against minority groups. If we want to extend a supporting hand to minorities affected by mass violence, we cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the ideologies of the mass shooters that infest our society.