"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Mass Shooting Events and the Media

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One of the things that has been identified as a positive reinforcer for people who lean toward the action of mass shootings is the knowledge that they will be immortalized in the media. For a loner who is feeling marginalized, the idea that they will suddenly become like J-Lo, would appear as an attractive option.

This article by law student Devon Black suggests that the media needs to own up to this activity, and to voluntarily stop the media frenzy that follows the shooter in such cases. I have to agree.  She comments on the Sun Media network’s decision to not publish the killer’s name.  I don’t listen to the Sun network as I find them too far over the top on most issues, but this is a very interesting piece of leadership on their behalf.

But screenshots of a murderer’s Facebook page won’t explain his murders. That’s not news — it’s just a voyeuristic glimpse into the pathetic rationalizations of a person who wanted to achieve greatness by cutting other lives short.

There’s no doubt that media shape our understandings of these horrors. Many of us, if pressed, could call to mind the names of the killers at Columbine, or that of the man responsible for the École Polytechnique massacre. But can we remember the names of the victims?

It’s not enough, in the aftermath of violence, to simply tread the paths laid down by those who walked before us. Journalists should think carefully about what they write, audiences about what they read.

When we focus in on the perpetrator of a crime, we fall into the trap he has set. The crime becomes about his actions, his motivations, his choices. He is given the spotlight he so desperately craved, while his victims are relegated to members of the supporting cast.

Engaging in this kind of coverage is a choice — and it’s not the only choice we have.

We’re lucky, in Canada, that mass homicides are rare. All the same, we know they occur — and news organizations should be prepared. We should have thoughtful policies and procedures developed well in advance to guide the newsroom decisions that must be made in the heat of the moment.

When tragedies happen, we have the choice in whose stories we decide to tell. If we so choose, we can tell the stories of the killers: the contemptible justifications they gave for their actions, their pitiful personal histories, the despicable decisions they made. We can tell the stories that might cause another tragedy.

We can also choose to tell the stories of the victims. We can tell the stories of the Moncton RCMP officers who showed up to do their jobs, putting their bodies in the line of fire between a man on a rampage and the citizens those officers chose to protect. We can tell the stories of the family and friends who now have to grieve the loss of loved ones taken too soon. We can tell the stories of the communities that rally together to support each other, long after the shooting has stopped.  [emphasis mine]

Dave Grossman (author, “On Killing” and “On Combat”) states directly that the act of publishing the killer’s name is a direct reinforcement to others of similar ilk. He suggests that after such an act the killer’s identity be purged from the public memory, and that this would act as a disincentive to such killers – knowing that their act of public violence will result, not in them being immortalized in word, book and song (cf the Boomtown Rat’s hit: “I don’t like Mondays“), but effectively ceasing to exist.

Ms Black also highlights the disturbing counterpoint to the focus on the killer – the victims disappear into the mind of a person who chose to effect evil in the world rather than good.

Our fascination with the mind of the killer is invariably focused on trying to understand the why, and to receive confirmation that only a sick person could do something so horrific.  Unfortunately, as Hannah Arendt pointed out, there is a certain banality to evil.  The demon you hope to see turns out to look a lot like the man you live next door to.  That thought leaves us totally terrified, and fearful for our safety.  Our search for absolute certainty that we are safe, feeds into the media storm that attempts to draw out every little bit of the killer’s mind.  It leads to things like the demonization of firearms owners, who become just an adjunct to the mass killer.

This contribution from the National Posts’ Chris Shelly was also refreshing – maybe it is time to move beyond the same rhetoric.

Grossman also points out that first person shooter RPGs are ideally suited for conditioning people to become mass shooters in his book, “Stop Teaching our Kids to Kill”.  This is a very controversial point, given the wide popularity of RPGs – it is easy to say, “If that’s true why aren’t we seeing more of these incidents?”  The answer is, we are seeing more of these incidents.  The reason there isn’t an epidemic, I believe, is because our societal norms are still powerful enough that the vast majority of people would never think to do violence to another human.  From the summary of his book:

In Paducah, Kentucky, Michael Carneal, a fourteen-year-old boy who stole a gun from a neighbor’s house, brought it to school and fired eight shots at a student prayer group as they were breaking up. Prior to stealing this weapon, he had never shot an actual handgun before. Of the eight shots he fired, he had eight hits on eight different kids. Five were head shots, the other three upper torso. The result was three dead, one paralyzed for life. The FBI says that the average, experienced, qualified law enforcement officer, in the average shoot-out, at an average range of seven yards, hits with less than one bullet in five. How does a child acquire such killing ability. What would lead him to go out and commit such a horrific act?

There is perhaps no bigger or more important issue in America at present than youth violence. Jonesboro, Arkansas; Paducah, Kentucky; Pearl, Mississippi; Stamps, Arkansas; Conyers, Georgia; and of course, Littleton, Colorado. We know them all too well, and for all the wrong reasons: kids, some as young as eleven years old, taking up arms and, with deadly, frightening accuracy, murdering anyone in their paths. What is going on? According to the authors of Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill, there is blame to be laid right at the feet of the makers of violent video games (called “murder trainers” by one expert), the TV networks, and the Hollywood movie studios–the people responsible for the fact that children often witness literally hundreds of violent images a day.

Authors Lt. Col. Dave Grossman and Gloria DeGaetano offer incontrovertible evidence, much of it based on recent major scientific studies and empirical research, that movies, TV, and video games are not just conditioning children to be violent–and unaware of the consequences of that violence–but are teaching the very mechanics of killing. Their book is a much-needed call to action for every parent, teacher, and citizen to help our children and stop the wave of killing and violence gripping America’s youth. And, most important, it is a blueprint for us all on how that can be achieved.

One of the compelling aspects of Grossman’s analysis is his discussion of the early video game, Duck Hunt.  The US Army started seeing recruits coming in who had never handled a weapon before, but could quickly become very proficient shooters.  When this was investigated, they discovered the new recruits had all been playing Duck Hunt.  It was found to be so effective that the US Army contracted for a militarized version of the game for use as a small-arms trainer.  More importantly, the video game helped to develop something that the military has to train into new soldiers – the ability to shoot instinctively to remove the morality tests in place for most citizens.

Read that last sentence again.  The goal of military weapons training is to teach the soldier how to fire instinctively, without engaging the moral analysis around the act of taking another’s life.  The way this is done is through repeated sessions of conditioning – firing on drop-target ranges, for example.  The target pops up, you fire, and it drops back down.  It’s the same sort of process carried out in those first-person RPGs.

Lest I be accused of being old-fashioned with respect to video games, let me say that I really enjoy all sorts of video games including the earlier versions of shooter games (like Ghost Squad).  After reading Grossman’s books on the subject, I was convinced that the possible harm to be caused by modern first-person RPG shooting games far outweighed any benefits, and decided they would not have a place in my home.  I also don’t see a problem with fantasy RPGs, as they provide enough separation from the real world.

It’s unfortunate that the discussion in these cases quickly polarizes around the subject of firearms control, and not around the deeper cultural issues that may have contributed.


Written by sameo416

June 10, 2014 at 11:48 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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