Now it’s “James Eagan Holmes,” another name we’d rather not know. Opening fire at a crowded Colorado movie theater during a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises,” Holmes killed twelve and injured dozens — seizing world attention and far more than his fair share of our collective memories.
Though hate crimes, mass murders and school shootings draw the public eye, statistically, there is no evidence of a rise in episodes of wholesale slaughter. Nor is it a uniquely American phenomenon, as illustrated by the horrific acts of Norwegian lunatic Anders Behring Brevik. Though perhaps there has been a rise in the perpetrator’s ability to swiftly and easily do harm.
Journalists and shrinks and the public fret over each killer’s declared motives, From Brevik’s islamophobia to Timothy McVeigh’s war against government, to Al Qaeda suicide bombers, to the murderous students at Columbine High School who appeared to be seeking vengeance for bullying. Yet, when we step back and look for common threads, the emerging pattern seems to be less about specific hatreds, racism or anti-Semitism than frenzied, bloody tantrums staged by a string of losers with one common goal — to grab headlines.
“The reason they are doing this is for their moment of glory,” says Marvin Hier, who has studied the subject intensely for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, “when they feel the whole world is stopping to take notice of them.”
This trend isn’t limited to hate crimes. In the chilling story of Cary Stayner — the Yosemite killer — we saw how one man’s penchant for brutality can be sharpened by an appetite for publicity. Soon after he confessed to murdering four women in Yosemite National Park in 1999, Stayner told San Jose reporter Ted Rowlands, “I want a movie of the week.” Though he admitted having murderous fantasies since childhood, Stayner may also have been propelled by a jealous wish for notoriety equal to his brother Steven, whose escape from a pedophile in the late ’70s was indeed dramatized for television.
It’s an all-too-familiar pattern. The Oklahoma City terrorists, Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski, killer Mark David Chapman and Anders Breivik all showed a yearning for attention, both in the headline-grabbing nature of their crimes and in their polemics after capture. And it extends to less violent outlaws who relish fame, like cyber-vandal Kevin Mitnick, who portray themselves as Robin Hood romantics for what amounts to pissing in the common well. Whatever their diverse surface-rationalizations, it also surely has a lot to do with getting noticed in an era that reveres fame.
Society appears to be trapped, obliged to pay madmen the attention they crave, in direct proportion to the hurt they do.
=== History and biology ===
Small surprise – this is not a new problem. Two millennia ago, in the Hellenistic era, a young man torched one of the seven wonders of the ancient world — the Temple of Diana at Ephesus. When caught and asked why, he replied first with grievances against individuals and his city state, then admitted that he really wanted to make a mark, to be remembered. Since he wasn’t a great warrior, or creative person, his best chance was to gain infamy by destroying something.
Evolutionary biologists explain why this happens almost exclusively among frustrated, under-achieving males. In nature, a male animal is never assured reproductive success. He must find some way to be noticed, to stand out, at least a bit. And the drive to stand out more than just a bit always simmers under the surface… because a risky gamble might bring disproportionate rewards.
“If I can’t achieve that through talent or great works or team effort or any of the regular routes… I’ll make a splash in ways you won’t forget!”
Sure, none of these fellows gets to breed after committing awful acts. It must have been more successful in the Neolithic. It will take millennia – or fierce female selection – to work that crazy recourse out of our genes.
=== A healthy reflex, turned horrid by exaggeration ===
Conditions today are ripe for more of this. Not only has fame itself been made sacred, but countless films and novels feed a culture of resentment by extolling the image of romantic loners, battling vile institutions. On the plus side, this all-pervading mythos fosters a healthy suspicion of authority – or SOA.
(Much of modern politics revolves around which elite you perceive grabbing too much power – e.g. oligarchs or snooty academics. Culture War might ease a bit, if we recall that other folks’ SOA fears may be as valid as ours.)
Alas though, SOA all-too easily inflates into contempt for all institutions, along with disdain for the very same tolerance and cooperative effort that sustain civilization. Now add another ingredient — the progressive diffusion of destructive technologies into private hands — and you get a recipe for profound unpleasantness in the years ahead. We just don’t need this trend further reinforced by the seductive lure of renown.
=== A possible solution? ===
One answer is suggested by that fellow who burned the temple at Ephesus. He is often called Herostratos. But in fact, many scholars think that is a made-up name, used to replace his true identity, which was expunged. To punish his abhorent act and to deter others with the same aim, the city banned speaking of him. Two millennia later, no one knows for sure who he really was.
Were the ancients on to something? If a sociopath’s attraction to villainy is partly engendered by hope for celebrity, might a “Herostratos law” take away some of the allure, by ensuring the opposite?
Of course things work differently today. Coerced forgetfulness is out of the question in a free society. Newspapers and journalists would have to participate voluntarily. Instead of suppressing actual facts, which are needed for accountability, good results might be achieved simply by making adjustments in style and presentation. After all, reporters assented, en masse, when Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh asked to be called “Tim” and the Unabomber said “call me Ted” instead of Theodore. If journalists accommodate murderers in this small way — as a reflex of professional courtesy — why can’t they lean a bit the other direction, after someone is convicted of gross felonies in a court of law?
Courts already do have some authority to order name-changes. Suppose that power were widened — any criminal sentenced for a truly heinous crime could be renamed as part of his punishment, with a moniker that invites disdain. New history books might state: “Robert F. Kennedy was slain in 1968 by Doofus25*.”
The asterisk is there to let anyone find the assassin’s former name in a footnote, if they are truly interested, so no one is actually suppressing knowledge. Nevertheless, the emphasis on a new moniker will take hold.
Who would choose the new names? Judges could get creative, or the public might be invited to suggest appropriate derogations. Or something random might be the greatest punishment of all.
However it’s done, won’t it make sense for ridicule to replace some of the grotesque fashionableness that’s now attached to terror? It would reflect society’s determination to allocate fame properly, to those who earn it. We would be saying — “You can’t win celebrity this way. By harming innocents, you’re only destroying your own name.”
The idea may seem odd, at first. Maybe even needlessly vindictive. But I promise it will grow more appealing each time the cycle is repeated by some murderous loony who demands our attention with both violence and contempt. Pragmatically speaking, it could contribute to breaking today’s vicious feedback loop by denying sociopaths the attention they crave, perhaps even tempting them to seek help. (Help we all-too-often fail to provide. But that’s another, much harder subject.)
Moreover, this approach to deterrence may give us — civilization’s rambunctious, argumentative, yet cooperative citizens — the last laugh. We can catch, punish and outlast them, of course. But above all we’ll deny villains any chance to win through violence a bigger place in history than the hard-working, creative people they hurt and despise.
Who knows? Some of those angry ones out there, who are teetering with indecision each desperate day, may even decide that it’s better to help lay a few bricks, alongside the rest of us, than to claw after infamy by tearing the walls down.
If they do — if they choose to join us — we should try to welcome them. Listen to them. And learn their names.
This article originally appeared in Salon and was revised and updated in light of recent events.