School shooters repulse, horrify and exhaust us. We fully understand that these shooters are despicable, inexplicable and indefensible.
When two massively selfish shooters invaded Columbine High School 20 years ago, we tried to understand and explain. Maybe the shooters were bullied. (They weren’t.) Maybe their minds were polluted by video games. (They weren’t.) Maybe they were a slice from a weird collection of debauched juveniles who wore trench coats. (They weren’t.)
The shooters glowed with evil as stars of the massacre, just as they intended. But slowly, we learned. We emphasize victims over murderers. We quit offering subtle excuses for the inexcusable.
We are no longer fascinated.
The two shooters who murdered one student and injured eight others in Highlands Ranch last week quickly faded as we mourned and celebrated the victims. We placed a light on Kendrick Castillo, who died a hero. We searched for the elusive secret to safe schools.
We paid closer attention to Tom and Caren Teves, who founded the “No Notoriety” movement after their son, Alex, was shot to death, with 11 others, in August 2012 at a movie theater in suburban Denver. They lead a campaign to reveal school shooters as creeps.
“Portray them for what they are,” Tom told The Associated Press. “They’re horrible human beings that are completely skewed in their perception of reality, and their one claim to fortune is sneaking up behind you and shooting you.”
Well said, Tom.
This crusade to place the violent and repulsive in the shadows is not new.
On Oct. 30, 1901, readers could pick from 33 New York Times front-page stories, including one that told of Mrs. H.S. Black failing to sneak a $35,000 necklace purchased in Europe ($1.05 million in 2019 dollars) past custom authorities. She faced today’s equivalent of a $600,000 fine.
Front-page readers did not see a story on the execution of Leon Czolgosz, who assassinated President William McKinley 53 days earlier in Buffalo. Czolgosz was electrocuted at 7:12 a.m. in Auburn, N.Y., 250 miles from Times Square.
Czolgosz’s clothes and personal items were immediately burned. And after an autopsy, quicklime and 10 gallons of sulfuric acid were poured on his corpse. Within 12 hours, Czolgosz’s body disintegrated to virtually nothing.
New York state, the Times reported, “was determined that the prisoner, despite the enormity of his crime, should gain no undue notoriety.” No notoriety, circa 1901. The attitude made sense. From 1865 to 1901, assassins murdered three American presidents, Abraham Lincoln, Civil War hero James Garfield and McKinley.
Much about Czolgosz’s rapid conviction and execution is troubling. His entire trial sprinted by in 8½ hours, and his lawyer ended his “defense” by apologizing for defending him. Czolgosz was likely insane, a man who spent his days sleeping, usually under trees. He even slept soundly the night before his execution. Guards had to shake him awake before leading him to the death chair.
But there was genius in trying to ensure this contemptible man gained precious little real estate in America’s imagination. The Times exiled the execution story to Page 5.
When I read of the men who blew up the Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City, killing 168 girls, boys, women and men, I’m outraged. When I think of the young man who gunned down 31 innocents at Virginia Tech, I’m disgusted.
But I’m normal.
The Columbine shooters read accounts of the Oklahoma City tragedy and hatched a plot to top it, hoping to kill more than 600. The Columbine shooters, in turn, became role models to unhinged young people who harbor strange and deadly ideas.
“There are a number of problems with the intense media focus on mass shooting perpetrators,” writes Jaclyn Schildkraut, an expert on mass shootings and a professor at State University of New York-Oswego. “First, they are explicitly seeking fame, and the media is helping them to achieve this end. The realization that this route to fame ‘works’ can, in turn, produce more lethal events and foster one-upmanship among perpetrators.”
We’re learning. The No Notoriety Movement doesn’t ask America’s free press not to name the shooters. The movement asks the press to spend only as much time with these twisted fools as is absolutely necessary.