If you watched any of the coverage on television of the mass shooting at that community college in Oregon, you probably heard Sheriff John Hanlin repeatedly tell reporters that he would never publicly utter the name of the shooter.
Sheriff Hanlin isn’t alone. According to the Wall Street Journal the sheriff “is one of a growing number of U.S. law-enforcement officials who are actively avoiding naming the suspects in mass shootings, noting that many cite prior killers as inspiration, and seem to be motivated by a desire for infamy.”
And more than a few in the world of television news see things the same way, and also refuse to give the killers name.
For the record, his name is Christopher Harper-Mercer. As a journalist I have absolutely no qualms saying who the gunman was. But there is something to the concerns of more and more people in law-enforcement and journalism. Here’s what the Oregon killer had posted about another deranged shooter, the one who not long ago killed two journalists in Virginia.
“A man who was known by no one, is now known by everyone. His face splashed across every screen, his name across the lips of every person on the planet, all in the course of one day. Seems the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.”
But while it’s true that a recent study found that mass shootings do in fact come in clusters, “What it couldn’t determine,” the Wall Street Journal reports, “is whether withholding of the name and details of the perpetrator would have an effect in reducing such things in the future.”
Whether naming such killers influences copycat killings or not, here’s a question for those who won’t give the killer what he may crave – recognition. What if the shooter in Oregon was a gunman called Ahmed Mohammed?
Is there any doubt – any! – that journalists (especially in conservative media) would be shouting his name over and over again? What’s the difference between Mr. Mohammed and Mr. Harper-Mercer?
We all know the answer to that one, don’t we?
But Ahmed Mohammed clearly is a terrorist, they would say, and therefore his name is relevant and newsworthy. And what if Mohammed had asked the religion of his victims right before he shot and killed them? Wouldn’t that, all by itself, mandate that we tell the world who this monster is?
But there were reports from reputable mainstream news organizations that Christopher Harper-Mercer did just that, that he asked the religion of his victims just before he shot them. Here’s a headline from the Washington Post: “Oregon shooter said to have singled out Christians for killing in ‘horrific act of cowardice.’” And NBC News reported that, “The gunman who opened fire at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College targeted Christians specifically, according to the father of a wounded student.”
Those reports may have been misleading, as it turns out. According to at least one other account, while the gunman did in fact ask his victims if they were Christian, it was not — in his warped view — to punish them, but rather to comfort them, to tell them that what he was about to do wouldn’t hurt. Then he shot them.
Whatever he was thinking, whatever motivated the question about religion, what if our hypothetical Ahmed Mohammed had asked the same question – wouldn’t that be enough for most journalists (and law-enforcement officers) to share his name with the public?
We all know the answer to that one too.
And if Christopher Harper-Mercer was seeking attention, terrorists are also seeking attention when they slaughter innocents. One may be seeking attention only for himself, the other for his cause. But both want their story to be told.
Still, many in journalism won’t show Christopher Harper-Mercer’s face or give him in death the satisfaction of uttering his name, because that supposedly is what he wanted.
But what if the next killer doesn’t want his name known by the whole world? What if he leaves a note that says, “I don’t want my family associated with this”? With mentally disturbed people anything is possible. So should journalists and sheriffs then name him –to deprive him of the anonymity he wants?
Do we really want disturbed people making those decisions for the rest of us?
When I was a reporter many years ago in Miami, there were lots of hijackings of commercial jetliners that were taken to Cuba. I have little doubt that news coverage influenced others to hijack planes. Should we have kept the public in the dark and not reported the hijackings?
That would be a dereliction of our duty as journalists. When we keep things to ourselves, bits and pieces inevitably manage to escape the darkness and the public doesn’t know what to believe. Crazy rumors spread. The public begins to hear things, and believe things, that never happened. How is this good in a free country like ours?
I don’t care what Christopher Harper-Mercer wanted. The public needs to know his name and as much about him as possible. But by doing just that, are we running a risk – are we putting ideas into the warped mind of some other angry, isolated young man out there? Maybe.
So if Sheriff Hanlin doesn’t want to utter the killer’s name, let’s allow him his silence. But journalists can’t keep the public in the dark – not about hijackings or mass murderers. Silence in a free country also has risks.