The copycat theory is only one of many, many theories about what inspires mass killings, but it’s hardly airtight. There have been humans intent on murder since Cain — and he didn’t get the idea from watching an MSNBC special on Richard Speck. (Though I’m sure he would have loved MSNBC’s prime-time programming!)
The Columbine murderers weren’t inspired by an earlier school shooting: The killers originally planned to blow up their school, but couldn’t get the bombs to work. Their other idea was to hijack a plane and fly it into buildings in New York — and this was two years before the 9/11 terrorist attack.
Two of the most famous mass murderers in history are Hitler and Charles Manson, and they do not seem to have inspired copycats. Nor have any terrorists attempted to hijack any airplanes since 9/11, though there are other factors at work there, such as George W. Bush killing them first.
The strongest case for media coverage of mass murders producing copycats was made by Clayton Cramer in his award-winning article, “Ethical Problems of Mass Murder Coverage in the Mass Media.”
But on close examination, Cramer mostly proves that the methods of mass murder are copied by other psychopaths who are already intent on engaging in the crime. Media coverage doesn’t create the desire to commit an infamous crime simply for publicity’s sake.
Thus, Cramer demonstrates that a few months after Time and Newsweek gave massive coverage to Patrick Purdy’s 1989 massacre at an elementary school in Stockton, Calif. — with particular emphasis on the guns — a mental patient, Joseph Wesbecker, shot up his workplace with the same type of guns Purdy had used.
A subsequent search of Wesbecker’s home revealed a marked-up copy of the Feb. 6 Time magazine, opened to the cover story on mass murderers, which was heavily underlined. The magazine’s cover was a picture of two crossed automatic weapons over a human skull shaped like the United States with the title, “Armed America.”
Time magazine didn’t put the idea of mass murder in Wesbecker’s head. Years earlier he had discussed killing people with his psychiatrist — specifically people at work.
But Time’s cover story blaming the guns did prompt Wesbecker to purchase those types of guns, which he began to do right after the article appeared. Perhaps it also convinced him, as Time’s editors were convinced, that it would not be his fault, but the gun’s fault — an argument that is strangely compelling to mental patients.
The eternally fascinating question about mass murder is never the means. It is the psychosis behind the desire to do it. We don’t need to know details about the guns, booby traps, bombs or fire starters. There will always be a way to commit mass murder. We want to know why.
But that is precisely the information these grandstanders in the media seek to withhold from the public with the pompous justification that they don’t want to give the presumed killer attention. For once, the media could deliver information that is both fascinating and potentially useful: What created James Holmes?
But many in the media have taken it on themselves to censor the news as their personal act of retaliation. Not making James Holmes famous — even famously evil — is what people who make their living on TV see as the cruelest punishment they can inflict.
Ann Coulter is an author and political commentator.