Head Strong: Let's give killers their due: Anonymity

In Binghamton, N.Y., the murderer of 13 people sought, and got, publicity for his grievances. He should not have been given it.
In Binghamton, N.Y., the murderer of 13 people sought, and got, publicity for his grievances. He should not have been given it.
Posted: April 12, 2009

Here's the payoff for the 41-year-old man who barged into a Binghamton, N.Y., immigration center and killed 13 people before turning the gun on himself: 369,000. That count, the number of hits his name generates when entered into a Google search, had been more than one million immediately after his mayhem. That number doesn't include mentions on radio and television.

That means he, like others before him, got what he was looking for. Next time, let's withhold the murderer's name.

The Binghamton killer didn't deserve the posthumous thrill of achieving any level of fame - or infamy - which he solicited via a rambling two-page letter that he sent to News 10 Now, a Syracuse television station. In the missive, dated two weeks before the massacre, he introduced himself to readers before detailing how undercover police officers drove him over a period of years to perpetrate the violence in Binghamton. "And you have a nice day," reads its final line.

We've seen letters like this from others. Between the two violent outbursts in which he killed 33 people, including himself, the 23-year-old responsible for the massacre at Virginia Tech two years ago found time to send a package of letters, pictures and videos to NBC News in New York.

In one video, he promised: "You thought it was one pathetic boy's life you were extinguishing. Thanks to you, I die like Jesus Christ, to inspire generations of the weak and the defenseless people." At another point, he referred to the two killers of more than a dozen people at Columbine High School as "martyrs."

That duo had a grand scheme. They originally intended to execute their plan on April 19, 1999, the fourth anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people - no doubt as a means of eclipsing that day's carnage. In one homemade video found after the Columbine massacre, they revealed their intention to cause "the most deaths in U.S. history."

None of this surprises Frank Farley, professor of psychology at Temple University and former president of the American Psychological Association. Farley's area of expertise is psychology and human behavior.

According to Farley, research suggests that the desire to achieve power or induce terror are among the motives for perpetrators of mass homicides. Some could be attracted to the perceived impact or influence their actions would bring. Others are after the "thrill value" of their crime.

Meanwhile, Farley explained, we're in the midst of an era of "disinhibition" - a "process of increasing self-revelation, of letting it all hang out." That's not inherently bad in and of itself. But "expressing one's inner turmoil through public violence" can be its most extreme incarnation.

In short, some killers are looking to earn notoriety from their crimes. Today's 24/7 media world is the surest vehicle for attaining that goal. There's no downturn in the news cycle, and between traditional outlets, blogs, satellite radio and 700 TV channels, the media beast always needs to be fed. No wonder the man who murdered three police officers in Pittsburgh last weekend told police he intends to write a book during his long stay in prison. A cop killer on this side of the state has already done so.

"Before our media-saturated age, you could commit some heinous crime, but the larger world would know little of it. So the extent of your impact would be small," Farley told me. Today, on the other hand, "a global platform is provided."

So why not withhold the names and pictures of the perpetrators seeking that global platform? Instead, tell us their ages and basic background information. The goal would be to diminish the appeal of violence to some prospective killers - to rob them of "their signature, their ownership of the crime," as Farley put it.

Of course, some will argue that ours is an open society and withholding a killer's name and image would be an infringement upon the media's duty to report what happened. But the point isn't to sweep violent crimes under the rug or discourage reporters from sharing the profiles of criminals and the details of their crimes. It's to discourage those prospective killers whose crimes would be accompanied by a media relations blitz.

Would that media coverage and investigation into the Binghamton massacre be any less insightful or informative if it didn't include the murderer's name and picture? Hardly. In fact, NBC withheld the last name of the killer's sister when she appeared on the Today show on Monday. It made her apology no less compelling.

The real question is this: Would the omission of the names and pictures help prevent a future rampage? Farley had it right when he told me: "I don't know what effects withholding the name might have, but even if it might reduce even one potential perp's interest in committing public violence, perhaps it should be tried."

Michael Smerconish's column appears Thursdays in the Daily News and Sundays in Currents. He can be heard from 5 to 9 a.m. weekdays on "The Big Talker," WPHT-AM (1210). Contact him via www.mastalk.com.

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