Right now, even as I write this, the next mass shooter is noticing the media attention being given to the current one. The wheels are turning in his mind as he sees how everyone is dissecting the current shooter’s motives and wondering how a crime so terrible could have happened. He is thinking to himself: “Huh. This guy sure got worldwide attention by killing all these people. He brought attention to his cause too. I bet if I killed a bunch of people then everyone would pay attention to me too.” And with reasoning like this, the next mass shooter will start to put his plan into practice. He will pick his weapon(s) and perhaps will get some weapons training. He will select a target – a church, a school, a summer camp, a business park, a McDonald’s. Perhaps he will think for a while about not doing it. After all, to do the horrific deed that he is contemplating will be to sacrifice the rest of his life. But the lure of the worldwide media attention will be too great. And so, not too many months from now, and when the media firestorm surrounding the Orlando shooting has died down, he will strike with all his might upon unsuspecting innocents.
Don’t think it’s going to happen this way? Read the news accounts about these guys’ psychologies. Almost all of these mass shootings are following the script I have outlined. While there sometimes are other motives involved – some are genuinely religiously motivated and the Charleston shooter, Dylan Roof, appears to have been a heinous racist – the desire for fame seems to be the major accelerator that is too great for these guys to resist. And in a certain sense, all of us who are tracking this Orlando story are giving these killers exactly what they want – the recognition that is only possible in a worldwide media age. Think about it for a minute, because this is a hard idea to accept. You and I, sitting in our living rooms and tracking the Orlando shooting on television or via articles on the internet, are in a certain sense creating the possibility conditions for the next mass shooting. I am not by any means saying that we are complicit in the future killings. Let me underscore this – I am not in any way saying that we media watchers are participants in the crimes themselves. But what I am saying is that in tracking this story we are giving these guys exactly what they want – attention to themselves and their wacko causes. And the attention is precisely the reason why they act.
The mass killer or shooter is a product of the media age. He is not a phenomenon you could have found, say, in nineteenth century America, in which there was no mass media industry. He is a product of a culture whose members want nothing more badly than to be famous. The great majority of kids growing up in America right now want to be stars – singers, actors, newscasters, Youtube hits, you name it. Many of these kids will go on to seek stardom in conventional ways. But the kids and young people whose minds become twisted want stardom too. And there is no easier way to get that stardom than to do some horrendous deed. Think back to the mass killers of the last few years – the Columbine killers, Andreas Lubitz (the Germanwings pilot), Seung-Hui Cho (the Virginia Tech shooter), and Adam Lanza (the Sandy Hook shooter) – in all of these cases the authorities found evidence suggesting that these killers’ intention was to become famous. “Someday the world will know my name” was the thought that was central to the mind of Andreas Lubitz before he crashed his Germanwings plane into the mountainside, killing all aboard.
If the mass killer is a product of the media age, what can be done? I propose two solutions. The first is that we all – collectively – pay less attention to the news accounts about the tragedies. Yes, we should mourn the victims. Yes, we should pray for the families. But then we’ve got to move on and not give these guys the media attention they are seeking. For the sake of preventing future tragedies, we need collectively to choose to decelerate the fame cycle that is incentivizing these killings. I have read one brief story about the Orlando killings and after that I have voluntarily read no more stories and watched no television reports.
Second, I propose that the media not mention the murderer’s name and not show his face to the public. This will be incredibly hard for media outlets to resist – after all, the more sordid the killer’s back story, the more dramatically the viewing audience will spike. But if the CEOs of media outlets in fact have a genuine desire to prevent future tragedies, they’ve got to know that their refusal to pay attention to the killer will be a deterrent for future would-be shooters. Break the fame cycle and you break the back of the mass killer’s repertoire. The time to prevent the next mass murder is now – while the current mass murder story is fresh in our minds. Horrific tragedies like this are incredibly sad things, and I am mourning them along with everyone else. But as media providers and consumers we do not need in the course of our grief to be incentivizing the next mass shooting. Let’s get smart, people, and start doing preventative things.
Note: this post was originally uploaded following the Charleston, South Carolina shootings. I have updated it again now because it is relevant also to the Orlando shootings.