Don’t look at this picture

This week marked the 12th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting. Two senior students killed 12 students and one teacher. Many others were injured. I grew up not far from there and have spent many years trying to understand what happened. A few weeks ago, Wellington Menezes de Oliveira embarked on a massacre in a Brazilian school. Twelve students were killed. I’d actually been meaning to look into the coverage more since early reports mentioned both that he was raised as a Jehovah Witness and that he, at the very least, expressed an interest in Islam. But the coverage was so weak on those angles (here, here, here).

I did some research, found some conflicting reports, and decided to drop it. He’d left a note mentioning something about his burial wishes (including that nothing “unclean” touch him). The same note mentioned Jesus. That sort of thing. The religious snippets indicated that neighbors believed he’d converted to Islam a couple of years ago but also confusion or mixing of belief systems. The non-religious picture that emerged of the young man was of someone (in my completely non-professional view) with serious mental health issues.

In any case, today I come across an Associated Press story that included four pictures that Brazil’s Public Security Bureau recently released. They came from a scrapbook they found in the home of the shooter. One of them accompanies this post. The piece is headlined:

Video, texts of Brazil school shooter show anger

The article explains that the murderer was angry and said he was reacting to bullying. He praised other school shooters. This is all really interesting. Here’s the sum total of the religion in the piece:

In videos and letters, Oliveira mentions God, quotes the Bible extensively, and discusses the quotations in long, rambling passages. He also says the attack was motivated by the bullying and humiliation he suffered as a student and continued to suffer into adulthood.

He cites Virginia Tech gunman Seung-Hui Cho as “a brother” along with a Brazilian teenager who in 2003 shot and wounded six students in the school where he’d studied, then killed himself.

We’re told that the pictures and videos he left are reminiscent of ones left by Cho before his murderous rampage. This all may be true. I speak no Portuguese so I’m relying on English-language media to explain everything to me.

So how does the piece explain the appearance of Oliveira?

Easy: It doesn’t. Nothing to see here. It’s the oddest treatment of the release of pictures that I can recall. Literally the only question I have is, “Hey, what’s up with the beard and stuff?” I mean, I wonder what most readers think when coming across a story like this. At least I was already prepared for someone to emphasize mental health or anger issues. But there’s “emphasis” and then there’s “really going out of your way to avoid discussing something.”

I’m sure it’s complicated, but the way this story has been handled is just weird.

Prior to these pictures coming out, the Wall Street Journal had a good — particularly for its brevity — story on videos Oliveira had made. Here’s how they explained the role religion played in his videos and suicide note:

A transcript of his suicide note suggests a ritualistic spiritual longing he somehow expected to be fulfilled upon his death. In it, he asked that his body be cleaned by glove-wearing orderlies, buried next his adoptive mother and visited by a religious person so that his soul would be ready for the second coming of Jesus.

He had developed confused set of religious beliefs that appeared to combine aspects of Islam with evangelical Christianity, and family members said he was glued to his computer, where he obsessed on videos of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and played video games.

Muslim officials in Brazil said he was not a member of any mosque. Rio security officials say writings recovered include confusing mix of references to Islam, the Jehovah’s Witness branch of Christianity terrorist attacks and violent video games.

There are many interesting angles to this story. For instance, why were so many of the targets female? Religion also seems to have played an intriguing role, one that could be much better covered and explained, even just within the context of mental illness.

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  • Daniel Haszard

    Several major news articles including New York Times stated that he was a Jehovah’s Witnesses all his life before turning to Islam


    The Watchtower religion in their very own literature will ADMIT to Jehovah’s Witnesses members *high stress levels* in other words manifestation of member mental illness: PTSD, depression,suicidal ideation,anxiety etc…. They ADMIT to this when propaganda serves them to advertise the *hardships” and *persecution* associated with being in the *one true religion* and having to carry on with bearing the torture stake (cross) of Jesus.

    According to US studies, “Jehovah’s Witnesses are more likely to be admitted to psychiatric hospitals than the general population”. “According to an article in the British Journal of Psychiatry,” he said, “they are three times more likely to be diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia and four times more likely to be paranoid schizophrenics. ”

    As a writer in the American journal Free Inquiry puts it: ‘Either the Jehovah’s Witness sect tends to attract an excess of pre-psychotic individuals who may then break down, or else being a Jehovah’s Witness is itself a stress that may precipitate psychosis. “‘Possibly both of these factors operate together …

    I was raised born a 3rd generation JW and I am being treated for PTSD for it,that is a fact it’s not “bashing” a religion to say so.–Danny Haszard

  • Bill

    I dunno, Mollie. He looks to me like one of those French fundamentalist Catholics in TMatt’s post that has secular France so worried.

  • Harold

    At least I was already prepared for someone to emphasize mental health or anger issues. But there’s “emphasis” and then there’s “really going out of your way to avoid discussing something.”

    Why is this an important story for the non-Brazilian press to cover? You seem to suggest that we need wall-to-wall coverage explaining every nuance as if this happened in Colorado and not Brazil. So I’m not sure it is surprising that the treatment of this story isn’t delving to the level you want, partially because it’s pretty clear that he was mentally unstable. Anyone who has read the stories you linked can have that picture painted pretty clearly

  • revaggie

    Maybe my math is wrong but isn’t it the 12th anniversary?

  • Ryan K.

    I mean maybe this young man had an amalgamation of religious beliefs and it is to convoluted to sort out.

    Yet on the other hand, if those with personal interaction with the young man say he converted to Islam and his appearance seems to show the same, it does beg the question why this would not be included in the news story.

    I really do try and understand the mindset of journalists covering these types of stories and am left thinking two things. 1. Either they really are ignorant on how to decipher through the religious details and say something cogent and true. 2. Or they feel like they are somehow doing a favor to society as a whole by glossing over stories that link violent acts and Islam.

    If the second is true I wish I could really understand where this mentality was picked up and how they think not fully informing the public is really what is in everyone’s best interest.

  • Randall Watters

    People need more education on fundamentalist cults and how to deal with/not do information. Try freedom of religion dot com.

  • Jon in the Nati

    Fascinating how even a tangential mention of Jehovah’s Witnesses on GR brings out the ex-JW/anti-Watchtower types.

  • Marion Rogers

    To: Jon–Same with the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Scientology promoters drawn like moths to a flame any keyword hits get em checking.

  • david

    Even Jesus had to dismiss one of his close confidants, and notice how, and quite strangely, that one former disciple self-destructed when all the others stayed faithful. This helps explain the bizarre things and rants former members such as Daniel Hazzard spew forth on occasions; it’s the Judas factor.

  • Mary

    Actually it’s the 12th anniversary of the Columbine shootings, which happened in 1999, when I was a senior at a nearby high school.

  • Rachael Jacobs

    Many leave the Watchtower Jehovah Witness cult because they discover that the organization is a scam ,a real estate holding company disguised as a religion and puts lives in danger over the NO blood issues. The Ex-JWS realize that they have a moral imperative to warn others of this cult.

    It took me years to de-program myself after being raised as a Jehovahs Witness. They’re a bad one… they dress themselves up like a harmless Christian bible-study church, but harmless they’re not. Dangerous mind and life-control cult.

  • Jody

    As an active Jehovah’s Witness who is NOT bitter, and who has thought a lot about the difference between a religion and a cult, I must objectively say that the Jehovah’s Witnesses usually get a YES vote on 1/2 to 2/3rds of the criteria generally used to identify a cult.
    Iam still in for family

  • northcoast

    Unless I missed it, there was no mention of religion at all in the Aljazeera coverage.

    What is the experience of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Brazil? Did the shooter have a tough time when he was a student? How many years ago?

    Off the GetReligion subject, the shooter had two guns. Brazil law requires guns to be registered, and carry permits are difficult to obtain according to Wikipedia.