Much of the media coverage of the Orlando massacre has focused on the shooter, a young-ish Muslim man, who shall remain, at least here, nameless. His father, his ex-wife and wife (now widow) have been interviewed, his family and work history excavated, his psychological profile pontificated upon, his selfies spread across the Internet and on the front pages of national newspapers, his claim of allegiance to ISIS seized upon, analyzed, and bandied about for political purposes, his name repeated endlessly, all with the ostensible purpose of somehow understanding what caused him to enter a gay nightclub and gun down dozens of people with a semi-automatic weapon. Who was this guy, and what motivated him? Was it hate, was it terrorism, was it madness? We need to know.
The only high-minded argument for this kind of scrutiny of a mass-murderer is that, in understanding him, we will be able to prevent this sort of thing from happening in the future; authorities will be better able to profile and interdict future perpetrators, and we will be enabled to detect them in our communities. But there is of course little evidence of this; vigilance over one’s neighbors curdles quickly into bigotry, and the frequency of mass murder in the US has increased rather than diminished in this age of 24/7 news cycles and perpetually talking heads –psychiatrists, security experts, former police chiefs — who all too willingly offer their expertise to the maw of media commerce. No, the attention paid to individuals responsible for atrocities like this stems from baser impulses, ones that we would do well to resist.
In an era when the only qualification of a presumptive nominee for the presidency is his celebrity, it’s no surprise that we tend to focus on personal identity when we seek explanations for the inexplicable. In the grip of outrage, we have a childlike wish for a story, for a neat linear narrative we can follow like our favorite TV drama. News organizations are now barefacedly in the business of entertainment, and we are addicted to the transient titillations they offer. Their focus on the person of the shooter is less about prevention than it is about their product and our prurience. Hence news anchors are shipped to Orlando to stand pointlessly in the street near the site of the crime, and we linger voyeuristically on the words of the survivors. This is exploitation, not news, and certainly not an exercise in prevention.
Even the language of the current examination is shaped into the tropes of drama. To call what played out in that nightclub a “tragedy” is to misunderstand both the origins of that word and the event. It was a heinous crime willfully perpetrated by a single man, and nothing like the true tragedies of disease, natural disaster, accident or botched intention that tear at our hearts because they arise not out of madness or evil, but out of fatal chance or simple human frailty.
We respond to tragedy with empathic sadness. And certainly we empathize with those who lost loved ones in that nightclub, those who still suffer their wounds. But the man who caused this? Our response to him should be a cold indifference to who he was, how he came to be, and what he intended, for we already know the answers, time and experience and common sense have taught us those answers, and he can teach us nothing. He is undeserving of our attention, and to turn it on him only serves his perverted purposes and, worse, ensures that there will be more like him.
This is not to suggest that we ignore the crime, or the ongoing risk of home-grown terrorism. Independent of the public fixation on the shooter and his motivations, there is a real investigation going on, conducted by professionals whose working lives are devoted to understanding, preventing, and punishing crimes like this. We should support and applaud them, and help them to go about their work, but otherwise ignore the criminal.
“We have a right to know!” cry the media drones whose jobs depend on this sort of endless, pointless, unilluminating attention to a personage deserving of none of it. But when does our wish to know, our addiction to dramatic narrative, collide with our self-interest? Though there is no evidence that the sort of attention being devoted to the Orlando shooter will reduce the likelihood of another event like this, there is every reason to believe that the posthumous fame and political dignification of this criminal as an ideological terrorist will incite more imitators, more young, deluded, angry, pathological aspirants to the media validation they see him receiving. If prevention of lone wolf attacks is a percentage game, we are worsening our chances by advertising a model for the hundred or thousand undecided thugs out there, hunched over their smartphones and dreaming of the fame we will heap on them when they, too, abandon hope and decency.
What if our cultural norm, rather than to reward mass murderers with unremitting attention, was to consign them to the oblivion they rightly deserve, to erase them from cultural memory rather than brand them into it? There is a template for this in Japan, where violent crime is rarely reported because it is rare, and rare in part because it is rarely reported, as if to underscore the societal shame it engenders.
If he were convinced that no attention would be paid to him or his family or his supposed cause, would the next psychopath be as inclined to plan the next bloodbath? What if there were a federal law – call it the Mass Murderer Effacement Act of 2016 – that prohibited the publication of the name, likeness, or personal details about anyone committing multiple murder? Leave aside whether such a law could pass Constitutional muster (arguably it could, as what more “compelling state interest” would one need than the prevention of another Orlando?); would we really lose anything of value in our awareness and understanding of current events? Would our freedom of speech be infringed in any way that matters in real life?
The current media frenzy over the Orlando shooter is like pouring nutrients on a lethal bacterium and hoping it will die. We need to cultivate a judgmental indifference to the personal narrative of evil, and suppress our fascination with it. The only rewards for perpetrators of mass violence should be silence, dismissal, and quick justice.