Could Loser-Shaming Prevent Future Auroras?

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?

A few weeks ago, in comparing my workout regimen to the agenda of an ultra-nationalist dictator, I chose Mussolini as my model. Since Il Duce, having seen his army driven from Greece and his navy bombed to scrap at Taranto, openly envied Hitler his military might, it was an awkward choice. I insisted on it for the sole reason that Mussolini was a ladies man; the partisans who executed him cemented this image by hanging his body alongside that of his last mistress, the lovely Claretta Petacci. His transalpine partner, on the other hand, never even got it up for the even lovelier Unity Mitford, at least not that anyone’s been able to prove. Not even in darkest jest would I identify with such a pathetic little worm.

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.

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  • Robster

    Like Brother Juniper in The Bridge of San Luis Rey, we’re trying to answer the “why?”. In that book, he tried to determine the purpose why 5 specific folks were on that bridge when it collapsed–why them and not someone else? Re Holmes, was he bullied? Biochemically skewed? Did he make a chain of choices that inevitably ended up this way? So why did he freak out when others suffering far more don’t? Cf. Gospel story of the fall of the tower of Siloam.

  • Robster

    Oh, to answer the question, shaming someone is not a great idea.

  • Michelle

    Wow. I just read the LA times article. Very sad. From personal experience, I would be willing to bet Holmes was a porn addict from puberty on…maybe even younger. I was one of the rare female addicts and unfortunately I became addicted at twelve. It has profound impacts on your brain especially at young ages ( I believe there are studies to back this up). Addicts become lazy, antisocial recluses and the more you view the more violent toward others and yourself you become. The grad students description sounded like what I used to be. I believe it also results in an obsessive nature, whether this is from a rewiring of the brain of sorts or a demon gaining an entrance from the addiction I’m not sure. Either way, the obsessive nature makes you more likely to engage in other obsessive vile thoughts. I’m willing to bet most of the people who have committed shockingly disgusting crimes of this sort have a sexually deviant compulsive sin at the core of it all that paved the way.

  • Anna

    Honestly, with some of these cases, I do think it would help. The one that happened locally (Dec. 5, 2007, Von Maur store) was a coward who had written about going out “in a blaze of glory.” If these guys (Columbine, Va Tech, Omaha, maybe Aurora) knew they wouldn’t be identified with tough-sounding terms like killer and shooter, and instead would be permanently known as losers, cowards, weaklings – the image of themselves they seem to be trying to destroy – maybe they’d at least only do themselves in. I doubt it would do much for certified loonies like in Tucson, but I think it would help with the ones who are trying to prove something. Interesting how this one seems to be the tipping point – less horror and more outrage and “what are we going to *do* [in a grassroots way] about this idiocy?” from society in general.

  • ace

    Losers? How about Frank Marshall Davis, Obama’s reputed mentor, who authored a hard-core porn book called Sex Rebel: Black, published in 1968 under the pseudonym “Bob Greene”? In the novel, among other things, there is sex with a 13-year old girl. Yes, Frank Marshall Davis had some bad racial experiences growing up, but does this explain the antipathy to Harry Truman and what used to be the Democratic party? Or, the writing of pornography?

  • Reluctant Liberal

    It seems a lot more likely to me that reading nerdy books would become associated with being a mass murderer than the reverse. If we want to start combating violence in our culture, then we need to stop praising the military so much and start going after the worst forms of state sponsored violence.

  • kesmarn

    Loser shaming may be a cause of this sort of violence, rather than a solution. Many mass shooters have just had an experience of deep shame — like being fired from a job, having a relationship go bad, or failing academically — and already feel like “losers.” Maybe a little less scorn and contempt for others in general would be wise. By consistently worshiping “winners,” American society creates little tolerance for times when things don’t go well. And those times come to every human life — without exception.

  • Glenna

    Loser-shaming? For a paranoid schizophrenic or anyone so delusional they would commit this kind of crime. This article shows a vast and deep ignorance of the nature of mental illnes which most of these kinds of perpetrators suffer from. What this society needs is better, more proactive identification and care from cradle to grave of those with brain disease

  • Diana

    Sorry, but when I first saw him with his idiotic orange hair and beyond child-like Batman fetish, “Loser” was the first word that came to my mind, and it has stayed there ever since. I don’t think he will have much time for name-calling, considering he’ll be dead soon. Good riddance.

  • cermak_rd

    Wasn’t Casey Anthony acquitted?

    [When justice miscarries, the media can deliver.]