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Terror attacks and mass murders will continue, leaving news reporters with an impossible dilemma


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Orlando, Nice, Munich, Bavaria, Ansbach, Sagamihara, Rouen… There have been so many high-profile mass killings in the last couple of months you could be forgiven for not having been able to keep up with them all.

It’s an unfortunate fact of life that the occasional atrocity will dominate the news, to the point that we’re almost desensitised to it. But over the last couple of months there has been such a spate of them that everyone has been left shell-shocked, and wondering what on earth is going on.

The possible reasons why there has been this increase is on everyone’s minds – could the news coverage itself be encouraging killers to gain blood-stained infamy?

Well, first of all, the numbers of attacks haven’t increased as exponentially as media may lead us to believe. When researching for a list of attacks to make sure I hadn’t missed any, I realised that if I listed all the terrorist attacks in June alone my opening paragraph would have made up half the article, and that’s not even looking at the multiple, daily US shootings. There are a horrific number of terrorist or other attacks across the world all the time, it’s just more have been close to home and particularly bloody lately. With this in mind, we must also make a distinction between terror attacks and lone wolf massacres.

Attacks by so-called ISIS have a different motivation and inspiration. Though there is no doubt that the huge coverage of their attacks is part of their plan to disrupt and divide people across the world, it is only a “fortunate” side-effect for them. No one would try to claim it is their sole or main purpose. The lone killers that are later claimed by ISIS have had their already disturbed minds twisted by the brain-washing of such groups.

As Gen Michael Hayden, a former director of the CIA and NSA, explains, the perceived power of ISIS “allows the truly troubled and the truly dangerous to reach for a broader cause that gives meaning to their alienation.” So, with the existence of such groups, it is likely that these attacks would happen regardless of news coverage. The need for awareness of such issues outweighs the possible encouragement of the rare few. Of course, the difference between those directed by and those inspired by ISIS is an important distinction, but an almost impossible one to determine after an event, which often results in the killer’s suicide or death.

When it comes to the killers who are not terror-orientated, many assume that they must be crazy. However, psychosis is not as common in serial or mass killers as popular crime media would lead us to believe. According to the FBI’s 2008 report on serial killers, for example, the majority are not insane, and in fact evidence suggests that these crimes are often committed by individuals who – although very different from the rest of us – are completely rational”, quoting Professor Peter Hepper.

This may strike many as confusing, but it is key to understand that psychosis and psychopathy are different things. Psychopathy is lacking remorse, not accepting responsibility and being able to blend into normal society, and is an almost a defining characteristic of such rampaging killers. Having made this distinction, Reid Meloy, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California, says that only 25% of mass murderers are psychotic when they kill – a significant proportion, but not enough to declare it the sole or main cause.

In the light of this, many turn to the desire for fame as a suggested motivation. Meloy explains that more often than psychosis, there is a sense of being humiliated by life” in the killers, and therefore they have “a desire to make [their] mark in history.” He has identified two groups of mass shooters: vulnerable adolescents and angry and alienatedolder males. When they spill some blood, suddenly their names are splashed all over media, which many believe in turn inspires other alienated, wannabe killers.

This has moved some news outlets to drastically reduce the use of the name of the killer. For example, after the Oregon shooting last year, Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin refused to use the murderer’s name throughout the investigation when speaking to media. There was a similar positive response from Orlando, with Buzzfeed creating a list of names, photos and life details of the victims, taking all focus away from the killer.

However, this absence of a name is not universal, and there is a strong suggestion that just the coverage itself is enough. Sherry Towers investigated the contagion effect of media on mass murders. She found that mass killings where four or more people died and school shootings were more likely to have national news coverage, and because of this the probability of a repeat event increased for the next thirteen days. By comparison, mass shootings – where less than four people died but at least three were wounded – were mostly restricted to local outlets and there was no evidence of contagion.

We’ve seen recent evidence of this with David Sonboly’s attack in Munich. Reports show he had been researching mass killings and had been planning his attack for a year since he visited Winnenden, the site of a previous school shooting.

With all of this research and evidence in mind, it still does not explain the recent spate of disasters – why now? If there’s some kind of domino effect, why isn’t there an almost constant, growing stream of brutalities?

One theory I had was that Orlando spurred it. Although there were the terrible attacks in Paris and Brussels earlier this year, Orlando seems to be the point it all began with the deluge of attacks in the last two months. The homophobic attack at the Pulse nightclub killing 49 and injuring 53 is cited as the worst mass shooting in US history. This declaration as “the worst in history” would seem like some kind of success – he has won the worst killer. It creates a competition, and other disturbed individuals want to see if they can do worse; if they can be more famous, and break more records.

That said, there does not seem to have been quite such a strict domino effect, and Orlando’s fallout may be more delayed. Not only have many of the recent attacks been terrorist, the lone wolf killers show a much longer gestation period and have pre-Orlando sources of inspiration. The Sagamihara killer had been showing a change in behaviour since February, and the Munich killing shows strong evidence of being inspired by the fifth anniversary of Breivik’s killing.

So perhaps there is no answer to “why now?”; perhaps it is just bad luck. Perhaps “what the world is coming to” is something awful beyond comprehension. Perhaps it is the recent and growing political and racial tensions and subsequent violence with the likes of Trump, Brexit and other extreme right-wing politics.

The fact is, no one knows. In a project I did a few years ago on serial killers (who are notably different but still similar to mass killers), I spent months trying to find the “true” nature of a killer, and failed. Despite extensive psychological and social research on the part of police organisations to try and pre-empt such tragedies, no one really knows what inspires these killers. Nor do we know of any common traits, other than that the vast majority are male. News coverage may be a factor, and it seems obvious to many, but if the gap between event and subsequent event can be five years, like in the Munich case, it seems there is little predictability.

The question is then raised as to whether news outlets could or should do anything. Given the evidence, I would say all we can do is know that it is an impossible dilemma. These people have something wrong with them that runs much deeper than a violent need for fame. Even if there were no news coverage at all, unfortunately these people would probably have still broken and turned to killing at some point. All we can do is report the cases in order to honour and remember the victims of these terrible crimes.

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