We got the bubble headed bleached blonde
Comes on at five
She can tell you ’bout the plane crash
With a gleam in her eye
It’s interesting when people die
Give us dirty laundry
Another day, another publicity murder. At least that’s the way it’s beginning to seem.
The latest shooting to shock the country happened Wednesday morning, when a former employee of a TV station ambushed two of his former coworkers on live TV. Not only did the shooter apparently time the shooting to be broadcast live, but he recorded it on a GoPro and, in what WaPo termed the “ultimate selfie,” uploaded the video to social media. (Twitter, sanely, took the video down.)
He’s not the first rampage shooter to seek attention. The Columbine shooters were quoted as saying they hoped Quentin Tarantino would make a movie about them. The Virginia Tech shooter sent a media package to a TV station. The Isla Vista stabber/shooter/runner-over-with-car uploaded a video to YouTube, describing the havoc he intended to wreak.
He’s not the first to seek attention.
And he won’t be the last.
Ironically, earlier this week, University of Alabama criminal justice professor Adam Lankford presented a paper (not yet published) detailing some of his research into what makes publicity murderers tick. Lankford argues in this paper that, despite having only 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States is home to 31 percent of mass shootings. One can debate Lankford’s numbers and the definition of a “mass shooting,” but more importantly, Lankford suggests the following three factors as pivotal in our disproportionate rate of such shootings: Ready availability of guns, a belief in American exceptionalism, and a craving for fame.
Let’s talk about those second and third factors. I’ll save availability of guns for a follow-up post.
What does Lankford mean by a belief in American exceptionalism? From the Los Angeles Times:
He cites survey data showing that young Americans continue to embrace the “American dream” of soaring financial and educational achievement, of doing better than one’s parents. When such dreams are frustrated, this bedrock belief in upward mobility predisposes some — especially those with a tenuous grasp on mental health — to psychological “strain.” In rare instances, severe strain helps forge mass shooters, he wrote.
The Roanoke publicity murder, while not a “mass shooting,” nevertheless appears to fit this part of Lankford’s profile. Media reports suggest that the shooter had not succeeded in his TV career, that he had been let go by the station, that he felt that coworkers treated him badly. The Aurora theater shooter also appears to fit this part: unsuccessful in school, emerging from a failed romance, not seeing success.
There is more that could be written about this, but let’s turn to fame. Fame seems to be a major preoccupation among many Americans. A 2007 Pew Research survey of people 18-25 years old found that about half of the people surveyed considered becoming famous to be a major life goal. TV shows like “American Idol” and “The Voice” tout fame as something to be desired, and parents of tweens and teens know that shows like “Hannah Montana” (starring Miley Cyrus as a teen pop star), “Drake and Josh” (in which one of the main characters aspires to music stardom), and “iCarly” (the adventures of the teenage stars of an Internet show) promote the joys of teen fame. At the same time, self-centeredness appears to be on the rise. Narcissism in pop music lyrics appears to be increasing, and college students increasingly lack empathy.
And, along the lines of P.T. Barnum’s famous quote that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity,” negative fame – or infamy – seems to be desired as much as positive fame. (As long as your name isn’t Jared Fogle or Josh Duggar.) How many times have you opened up People or Us (assuming you read such things, which Your Humble Correspondent refuses to admit to) and seen articles of an actor’s or pop star’s arrests? And don’t get me started on the Kardashian clan.
Lankford notes, “We know that a lot of public mass shooters, particularly when they’re young, have admitted that they really want to be famous, and that killing is how they’re going to do it.” Google “wanted to top columbine,” as suggested by LiveScience, and you get result after result after result of publicity murderers thinking Columbine is something to be admired.
Mary Muscari of Binghamton University, who has also studied publicity murderers, says,
“Especially some of the younger ones — they want attention. That’s why you see them wanting to have a bigger head count, a bigger body count, to try to outdo the last one or to do something that is going to cause more of a rise.”
Adding fuel to the fire is contagion. It has been said that suicides are often “contagious,” which is why the media voluntarily refrain from publicizing the details of a suicide. (Usually they do, that is. I still don’t think we needed the details of Robin Williams’ death.) Well, a study released last month indicates that mass killings and school shootings are also contagious.
So. Fame plus contagion.
And a news media that revels in other people’s dirty laundry. “If it bleeds, it leads,” and so forth.
Every time a publicity murder (well, one with guns, anyway) occurs, what do we see? Pictures of the shooter. Pictures from high school yearbooks and Facebook pages. Booking photos if the shooter doesn’t kill himself before getting arrested. If the shooter left a manifesto – whether by faxing to a TV station, posting on YouTube, or tweeting – we get pictures of the fax, screenshots of tweets, links to YouTube. Lots of navel-gazing “why did he do it?” articles. The shooter’s name repeated over and over and over. Some news reports stated that the Charleston shooter smiled when he saw a report about him on the teevee. Even when the shooter kills himself, he becomes famous in death. He attains the status in death that he didn’t have in life.
Please take to heart Professor Lankford’s new report. Don’t just focus on the availability-of-guns part. Think about the other parts – American exceptionalism and fame. Think about how those parts go together. You get a disillusioned, angry, possibly mentally unstable guy who isn’t seeing success in life and sees other young guys getting on the teevee and on everyone’s Facebook feeds by committing what should be an unthinkable act. And when he does what gets other guys fame, you give him fame. Every time you show his picture, every time you speak his name, you’re giving him exactly what he wants.
And some other guy is going to see that.
And another one.
And another one.
Where does it stop?
It may be “interesting” when people die, but do you have to give us dirty laundry?