In an episode from South Park’s sixth season, Butters, embittered over his demotion from Kenny’s replacement to supporting character, declares war on humanity. Forging a suit of armor out of tinfoil, he adopts an alter ego, Professor Chaos, and proceeds to bring what he calls “destruction and doom,” to the community. Fortunately for the community (and for him) his idea of destruction and doom involves switching the orders at a local diner. Even the local paper won’t cover it.
Some media self-critics wish they and their fellows could draw a similar veil over Friday’s ghastly Aurora massacre, or at least over its perpetrator, James Holmes. In The National Review Online, Seth Leibsohn writes of Holmes: “He should not be glamorized or given any kind of proper-noun attention at all…[Mass murderers] have alienated themselves from society, almost as if they have alienated themselves from being important enough to have a name like everyone else.”
Understandable, but unrealistic. Evil may prove itself consistently to be banal, but the public has never resisted the pull to stare it in the face. Probably, evil’s very banality is part of the draw. At a level far beneath any civic-mindedness or human sympathy, it’s thrilling to imagine that the boy — or in rare cases like Casey Anthony’s and Susan Smith’s, the girl — next door could be a ticking time bomb. Not to satisfy that demand by witholding a killer’s name and dysfunctional history would take more self-restraint than any private enterprise has ever shown, at any time, anywhere.
In The Atlantic, Brendan McCarthy suggests a very different de-glamorization procedure. “Just employ the qualifier ‘LOSER’ every time [murderers’] names are mentioned,” he writes. “Maybe news media should also include an apology alongside each picture, like, “We are sorry to have to show you this LOSER picture, but …”
At least when it comes to leaving potential copycat maniacs uninspired, this, I believe, could be the ticket. Among other things, it would have the ring of truth. If you take the high-school definition and add bad credit, so many celebrated killers and would-be killers are losers. The spottily employed John Hinckley, Jr. was reduced to inventing his girlfriends. Jared Lee Loughner was a pothead and army reject. Even Holmes, reportedly a neuroscience whiz, played junior varsity soccer.
Highlight these facts — quote weird chatroom exchanges, list embarassing tics in clinical detail — and you’ll fire a warning shot across the bow of loser America. Step outside the line, and all your loser laundry will go on display. It is better to be peaceable and thought a loser than act out and remove all doubt.
I’m attempting to speak here as a slightly senior member of the demographic group that stories like Aurora get people twitching over. You know my type — bright, underachieving male with a regular Library of Congress of social and sexual humiliations clogging his neurons. As the crime reporter’s cliche goes, I’m generally quiet and keep to myself. Though I may wrap myself in the title LOSER as though it were an emotional cilice, it’s about the last thing I could stand for anyone else to call me.
This grim self-knowledge colors how I receive the stories of other losers who gained the spotlight for the wrong reasons. It’s been over a decade since I read The Executioner’s Song, Norman Mailer’s recounting of Gary Gilmore’s spree-killings and subsequent death by firing squad. Only one scene remains with me: Gilmore, newly released from prison, engages in an arm-wrestle with Vern, the goold old boy he’s living with. Each contestant holds a fistful of toothpicks over the spot on the table where the other’s hand is sure to come crashing in the event of a loss. It’s Gilmore who loses, and badly, with Mailer-as-narrator reporting, “Vern said he didn’t guess Gary was much of a man.” I’m convinced my memories of the book end here because the episode killed my interest in Gary. If he can’t win a simple arm-wrestle, then really, who cares who he kills?
Loser-shaming might be a no-sale among the truly delusional, people who see themselves as the sole surviving innocents in, or the saviors of, a corrupt world. In Slate, Daniel Engber suggests that the sword, with all its grandiosity and theatricality, could have special appeal for these lost-beyond-recall types. “The sword,” he writes, “is the weapon of nerds. It’s also the weapon of schizophrenics. And, most of all, it’s the weapon of schizophrenic nerds.” As an example, he offers former Ugly Betty actor Michael Brea who hewed up his mother with a three-foot Masonic blade in order to kill a demon he believed was living in her. There’s no room in that worldview for the agony of self-conscious loserdom.
But invoking the voice of the schoolyard chorus might win some traction among the merely maladjusted, who are also capable of committing antisocial acts. James Ellroy, author of the most sensuously violent crime novels in the English language, began life as a sad, attention-seeking weirdo. He marched through middle school wearing a swastika armband. Throughout high school and beyond, he broke into the houses of the popular girls and stole their lingerie. His writing about this earlier self fairly drips with shame at the silliness, the sheer unmanliness, of it all. The title of one such autobiographical essay, “My Life as A Creep,” tells the story in a nutshell. This is the view of the loser redeemed.
At the very least, the press should stop inflating killers’ CVs. Lacking a diploma from Groton or Exeter, Ted Bundy had no legitimate claim to the title of preppy killer. The fact that he had all his original teeth, no Fu-Manchu, and no middle name of “Lee” just doesn’t cut it. Just yesterday, the L.A.Times carried an interview with John Jacobson, a graduate student who supervised James Holmes when Holmes interned at U.C. San Diego’s Salk Institute. In Jacobson’s account, Holmes was nowhere near as brilliant as the media has been reporting. Instead, he was professionally incompetent and socially withdrawn — basically, your classic office misfit. That’s the face of the killer the public ought to see. If it wants high-rolling evildoers, let it learn to be happy with Jerry Sandusky and Julian Assange.