Sheriff John Hanlin of Douglas County Oregon is being lauded for not speaking the Umpqua Community College killer’s name. The rationale is that speaking the killer’s name glorifies a repugnant crime and may motivate other like-minded deranged people. I agree that this criminal deserves no glory, but if we fail to understand who he was, how will we recognize the warning signs of the next like-minded deranged person?
Deciphering what exactly motivates a mass killer is terribly complicated and tragically imperfect. The perception that mass killers are driven only by a desire for post-mortem recognition and the highest body count is not really consistent with the facts.
Some, but not all mass killers set out to kill as many people as possible. According to witness accounts, the killer at Umpqua focused on killing Christians and that not killing as many people as possible, appears to have been his goal. Similarly, the killers at Columbine targeted and murdered 13 people, while bypassing many others.
The largest mass killer from a non-terrorist attack in the U.S. was in Bath, MI in 1927. Was he driven by media coverage? Some mass killers research mass killings and some idolize mass killers. Regardless, is it really a reasonable prevention strategy in this day and age to expect to regulate news reports? We cannot even control fictional nonsense like Sandy Hook conspiracy theories…
Rather than refusing to state his name, wouldn’t it be more helpful to educate the public and say: “Chris Harper Mercer was a cowardly murderer. He was also a member of our community who was fascinated with mass killings and was intolerant of people of faith. While these actions were not illegal, they were warning signs. If you know of someone that shares these views, or causes you a concern for your safety or the safety of others, please notify my office so we can try and help that person. With your help, we can prevent these tragedies from occurring.”
Yes, these killers are monsters, but monsters don’t have claws and fangs and live in dark scary places. They look like us and live in our communities. Refusing to name a monster makes us think he is somehow less human. If we believe these monsters are inhuman, we risk thinking they are confined to dark scary places and miss warning signs coming from people in our communities.