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Publicity of shooters asks for copycats

Opening a Sunday newspaper on Dec. 9, I turn to Page 2 and find a picture of the Omaha shooter and a story using his name five times as well as vivid descriptions of him and his act and the reactions of some of those directly affected.

All that is lacking from this story that hasn't been repeatedly reported is the perpetrator's writings, which made clear that his intentions were largely to achieve fame and notoriety. Do we need this perpetrator's name and picture to get the impact of this story? Haven't both been used often enough so that the public's need (or desire) to know has been more than adequately served?

And more importantly, is there a potential for a similarly motivated perpetrator who runs across this news spread at just the right time and decides this has worked pretty well? 'Besides, life is meaningless and too difficult, and why shouldn't some of those self-satisfied bastards who have caused my difficulty be made to pay some price?

'So how should I proceed? I think I'll just read further, and look in newspapers and on TV to see what I can find.'

While this clear example of a risk for further copycat behavior is hardly the most important problem facing our nation and world, it must rank high, and it is perplexing why it receives so little attention. ('World, Have Your Say,' on Dec. 7, Oregon Public Broadcasting, did treat this subject recently.)

If it is conceded that it has so far caused relatively few deaths (if Virginia Tech can be considered few), is it reasonable to speculate that hundreds could be killed in one of our local high schools, given just the right set of circumstances and one or several willing perpetrators? Would it take that to alert us to what seems to me to be adequate reasons for obvious concern?

Am I unusual in having known of such potential perpetrators among my own family and friends? I think not. Many of us carefully scrutinizing our close family and friends will probably conclude likewise.

My experience as a teacher of youth in detention amplifies this perspective. Though these incarcerated youth range from truants and runaways to hardened criminals, it is inescapable that the potential for massive shootings resides within our everyday communities, and perhaps dozens of youth in each of our local mid-sized to large high schools are capable of, and perhaps inclined, to respond to such suggestions.

Joseph Lieberman (no relation to the Connecticut senator) has recently documented more than 50 years of such shootings in a chapter, 'Copy Cats' in 'The Shooting Game: The Making of School Shooters,' Seven Locks Press, 2006. Lieberman carefully describes and interrelates more than 30 shootings between 1974 and the Columbine carnage among others of the 1990s, emphasizing that 21 shootings during the previous 30 months preceded the deadly Thurston High School shootings in Springfield in 1998.

He further documents research showing that 60 percent of male and 30 percent of female college freshmen harbor homicidal thoughts. So the phenomena are not unusual or even recent in our history. The ubiquitous media and the prevalence of effective weaponry make the present much more threatening, and this makes the ways we publicize shootings a particularly urgent consideration.

Are we so numbed with the barrage of media representations of disastrous life- and world-threatening circumstances that we simply don't register with smaller scaled personal tragedies? Well, if we had a local school shooting that killed dozens or hundreds of individuals with whom we could personally identify, our attention would surely be obtained, but too late. And who would then be willing to take responsibility for the possibly thoughtless release of media that may have helped precipitate such a tragedy?

How can we help control this situation? I propose we start by recognizing our limitations. We can't expect government to control the news. Our state and federal constitutions simply won't allow it. It must come from agreements reached among media, and I am proposing local media as a starter. While some media may courageously and at some economic risk, on their own take such action (as when The Chicago Sun Times refused to publicize Columbine shootings) it is unrealistic to expect unilateral censorship in fiercely competitive media outlets.

Such action could jeopardize an outlet for this otherwise responsible action as typical viewers/readers quickly turn to the competition.

This is particularly the case for TV outlets, but pertains also to newspapers. So I propose that the Pamplin Media Group news outlets simply take the lead. Perhaps Willamette Week and The Oregonian could then be enlisted, followed in turn, after a thoughtful pause, by the four to six TV outlets.

Is such reasonably possible? Such restraint has been shown regarding suicides, and also chopper overviews of ongoing police/criminal standoffs. Worth trying? Sure! Perfectly tight agreements? Hardly. But how about at least starting down this road?

Dick McQueen is a Welches resident.