Entertain a scenario: An angry young man stalks your neighborhood, committing crimes. But no one tells you who it is, even after his arrest, for fear of “giving him attention.”
Entertain a few questions: Who was Ted Bundy? Do you believe knowing the answer somehow disrespects the people he killed? Or that knowing his name changes anything he did, and how much he enjoyed it?
Few people would accept the first scenario — they have the right to know who is accused of committing crimes against them and how their police and judicial systems are spending their money. It also serves the public interest to be able to ensure even the most odious of defendants is fairly treated, and that’s a little difficult to track without so much as a name.
The second list of rhetorical questions may be a little dicey, prompting an old debate about feeding into monsters’ sense of notoriety. But the answer to the yes or no questions posed is, honestly, “no.” Ted Bundy’s name is basic information. The hypothetical offender in the first scenario is basic information. Even the name of an adult graffiti vandal is basic information, although people have argued reporting it “glorifies” what they’ve done.
These issues have arisen in the wake of the mass murders of Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand. Men, women and children were cut down:
Atta Elayyan, Mucad Ibrahim, Sayyad Milne, Lilik Abdul Hamid, Areeb Ahmend, Tariq Omar, Sahid Suhail, Syed Jahandad Ali, Haroon Mahmood, Farhaj Ahsan, Maheboob Khokhar, Muhammad Haziq Mohd-Tarmizi, Asif Vora, Ramiz Vora, Ansi Alibava, Ozair Kadir, Haji Daoud al-Nabi, Ali Elmadani, Husna Ahmad, Naeem Rashid, Talha Naeem, Amjad Hamid, Kamel Darwish, Linda Armstrong, Mohammed Imran Khan, Mohamad Moosid Mohamedhosen, Hamza Mustafa, Khaled Mustafa, Junaid Ismail, Abdelfattah Qasem, Ashraf Ali, Ashraf Ali Razat, Mathullah Safi, Hussein Al-Umari, Musa Vali Suleman Patel, Ashraf al-Masri, Hussein Moustafa, Mounir Soliman, Zeeshan Raza, Ghulam Hussain, Karam Bibi, Abdukadir Elmi, Mohsin Al Harbi, Osama Adnan Youssef Kwaik, Mohammel Hoq, Mohammed Omar Faruk, Muhammed Abdusi Samad, Muse Nur Awale, Amhmen Gamaluddin Abedl-Ghany, Zakaria Bhuiva.
Their “sin” was of being different than the man accused of killing them, Brenton Tarrant, 28.
New Zealand media debated whether to identify him by name. Prime Minister Jacinda Arden, who has shown remarkable leadership in this crisis, has vowed never to speak it.
To be clear: I do not suggest Arden, as an individual, is wrong not to speak the shooter’s name. That is her choice and there is no small measure of nobility and compassion in that choice.
The issue for me is the number of people in our own country who seem to be advocating censorship of unpleasant information because a remorseless individual might get his jollies out of receiving “credit” for a monstrous crime.
The number of comments made by U.S. citizens that beg U.S. media to follow suit and that suggest mass killers not be named is staggering. Understandable as it is, that mindset is also short-sighted and based on emotion, not reason.
As an overall, society-wide strategy, hiding such basic information as an offender’s name changes nothing; prevents nothing, and arguably conceals important knowledge. Whether an offender revels in his notoriety isn’t something the media or anyone else can control, no matter how much we might wish the opposite.
The prospect of an offender enjoying the attention — whether the offender is a graffiti vandal, a Ted Bundy or a Brenton Tarrant — does not free the media or law-enforcement officials from providing information and it does not free individuals who choose to access that information from understanding it. This information includes basics — like murder suspects’ names.
Put simply, naming a killer is not condoning a killer, consciously rewarding a killer or creating future killers. It’s telling others who he is.
Also, although I lack sufficient knowledge of Tarrant’s mental state or psychological history to speak in absolutes, it stands to reason the man revels in the act more than anything. Concealing his name is not only a disservice to the public, but pointless: We are all talking about what he did, and no one I know of is suggesting we should not.
Individuals can choose whether they want to access information, but they do not have the right to make that decision for other people by putting up roadblocks to its release.
Neither is the mere act of analyzing what he did “forgetting the victims.” It is entirely possible to assess what was done — with the goal of preventing it from being done again — and to remember, honor and respect those who were murdered. Unfortunately, some present this as an either-or proposition. But one way to honor the victims is to get at the root causes of their murders.
Honoring victims also involves examining the ease of access to the most efficient and convenient tools at the disposal of violent, angry people. Like it or not, those tools are guns. New Zealand acted quickly; its solution is unlikely to be palatable, legal, or effective in America (it is true that criminally minded people are unlikely to adhere to an assault-weapons ban), but that does not mean there should be no conversation about weapons-access.
At the very least, there could be broad acknowledgment that a tool like a gun greatly increases an evil person’s ability to inflict harm. The mere acknowledgement is not a threat to gun rights. Like the name of the perpetrator, it is a basic fact.
Since 51 people were gunned down in their houses of worship, New Zealand has banned Tarrant’s manifesto, too.
That is more understandable, given the document is said to actively promote more murders and acts of terrorism. There is a difference between simple knowledge — the suspect’s name — and giving his twisted, hateful message a forum by publishing it, which I would not advocate.
New Zealand went even further, making it an offense for individuals to so much as have the manifesto, an offense that according to TIME, could result in a 10-year prison term. People are debating whether that goes too far, whether it would serve to lend “the document and the gunman mystique,” as TIME put it.
The manifesto’s words need not be broadcast, but unfortunately, neither can they be erased. The best hope is that counterterrorism and law enforcement officials who are scouring its every line draw something from it that can serve to prevent a future attack.
Danish journalist Claus Blok Thomsen, quoted in TIME’s article, illustrated the risks of even well-intended censorship: He said media covering the trial of Norway’s mass murderer Ander Breivik’s trial did not discuss Breivik’s “far-right ideology.”
Yet, Thomsen said when he interviewed victim families, they were angry: “They said when we start to censor ourselves we just make him into a martyr. We are not able to learn how mad this guy was, what his thinking was, until everything is out in the light,” Thomsen said.
The bottom line of reporting the truth, no matter how unpleasant, yet doing so responsibly, is a fine one to walk. But censorship of basic details, whether through media self-censorship or government-ordered censorship, achieves nothing meaningful and may even be harmful. American citizens should be the last to advocate for that, no matter how heinous the crime.
P.S.: Lynda Ann Healy, Donna Mason, Susan Rancourt, Roberta Kathleen Parks, Brenda Ball, Georgeann Hawkins, Janice Ott, Denise Naslund, Caryn Campbell, Julie Cunningham, Denise Oliverson, Nancy Wilcox, Melissa Smith, Laura Aime, Debra Kent, Susan Curtis, Lisa Levy, Margaret Bowman, Kimberly Leach, Lynette Culver.
These are the names of Ted Bundy’s known victims, excluding women he attacked but who survived, as well as names of possible victims of his who have not been confirmed. Any errors or omissions were not intentional.
Katharhynn Heidelberg is a journalist in Montrose, Colo.