It can be seen as one of the most random and complex crimes of the modern age, but mass shootings have a “birthday”, and they turn 50 today. It’s a birthday directly linked to media coverage.
On August 1, 1966, a 25-year-old engineering student at the University of Texas, Charles Whitman, climbed a tower on the campus and began shooting at random people. In all, 17 people would die, along with Whitman himself. On that day, a script was written, one that has been followed ever since.
Before the script, the history. It’s important to note there was a time when crime of mass random murder (whether by gun or otherwise) was incredibly rare. The first mass shooting was in Germany in 1913, when nine people were killed by Ernst Wagner. The second was actually in Melbourne in 1923. In the first half of last century these crimes were sporadic, reported globally, but did not generate any in-depth analysis.
That’s what changed in 1966. The crime of the “Texas Sniper” was the first to receive the kind of coverage that has become so familiar:
- An intense focus on the perpetrator (photo from his childhood holding a rifle, extensive descriptions of his character, his background, what he was wearing that day, that he suffered from headaches);
- How the crime was carried out (in detail. The gun crate carried up the stairs, the provisions, the radio, etc); and
- The speculation as to motive (asking “why?” seems a perfectly reasonable, if not essential, question for a journalist to undertake. However, this script wrote that to answer “why?” you must go back to “who?” and discuss the perpetrator, at length).
The script for how this crime would be covered was written that day. From that moment on, the crime of the mass random shooting went from rare, to a global average of 15 a year, and stayed there.
Leading experts — like Australian Forensic Psychiatric Professor Paul Mullen, who analysed both Martin Bryant and Julian Knight — say that nine out of 10 mass shooters are not psychotic when they commit the crime. So this terrible event comes from another place, has another motivation. Since 1966 there is evidence the perpetrators know exactly how their crime will be covered.
If you’re a loner with a gun fetish, the script has offered you a compelling way to make sure everyone knows your name, your face, your grievances.
There has been, however, a recent push back against the nature of the coverage we give mass shooters. In June, FBI director James Comey refused to name the perpetrator of the Orlando nightclub shooting. CNN’s Anderson Cooper also preferred to focus the story on the victims, rather than their killer.
They’re not the first, although such refusals are rarely part of the mainstream coverage of these crimes.
In Munich we saw a rush to the new association of mass killings with terrorism, but once doubt was cast on that, the script returned in full: gun-obsessed loner with detailed knowledge of previous mass shootings.
The word “copycat” is often used when discussing the inherent distaste at the way a murderer can have their entire life poured out on screen after committing a terrible act.
In truth those who say there is no evidence that the type of coverage given to mass shooters causes copycat are right. Even though it might seem like they cluster, mass shootings fall outside the very specific time frames within the copycat model.
The phenomenon of “Amok” — from Malay/Indonesian culture in the 17th and 18th centuries in particular (although recordings occur from earlier) — provides a much better framework in which to put the mass shooter and their relationship with the media.
An Amok perpetrator would kill indiscriminately (with dagger or sword) until he (always he) himself was killed. Because of a spiritual belief — in evil tiger spirits that can inhabit a man and cause mayhem — people would harbour no ill will to the assailant, and it could even have been seen to restore honour to one who had been somehow slighted or humiliated. As such, the Amok perpetrator knew how the crime would be perceived, how he would be spoken about, before committing the crime.
The colonial British government in the region were the ones facing the problem so familiar to us now: how can you possibly stop someone killing people indiscriminately, especially when access to weapons is so easy? They did two things: they trained the local police to capture the Amok perpetrator alive, instead of killing them in the act (the assailant’s expectation/wish); then, instead of sending them to prison, the authorities placed the perpetrator in an insane asylum — a place of deep cultural shame.
It worked. They stopped Amok. By changing the script.
Any discussion of forcing vastly distinct media outlets to even contemplate a blanket change on an issue of public interest is rightly divisive. But there are answers to complex questions out there, there is evidence and there is precedent. It starts with education and with a conversation. Where it goes from there is, at the very least, informed.
On this 50th anniversary of a crime that plagues our world, let’s call Amok what it is. Let’s ask whether it’s time to change the script.