The Great Evasion

A Myspace profile image from a profile that appears to belong to Chris Harper Mercer, the 26-year-old identified by news outlets as the gunman in the Umpqua Community College shooting.
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Over the course of the day we’ve had a handful of readers write in to ask or demand that we not report the name of the shooter, Chris Harper Mercer, in the Oregon school massacre. As the massacres continue, an increasing number of people think that we should expunge the names of the offenders both to obliterate their memory and deny them whatever infamy or perverted glory they hoped to gain by their crimes. I respect this viewpoint. I simply do not agree with it as something a news organization can or should do. There are various specifics of the argument. But for me it comes down to this: news organizations should report all relevant news. Criminals, of all people, should not directly or indirectly affect that. Except in very specific cases, when grave and overriding equities are at stake, that’s the rule we should follow. You can agree or disagree. If it’s the latter, I respect your disagreement. But that’s not the real point I want to discuss here. Over the course of yesterday and today I’ve noticed a new phenomenon that seems to have come into its own with this latest tragedy. The refusal to name these offenders’ names is now transforming into a purported symbol of action and defiance.

It’s notable that things kicked off with Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin grandly pronouncing that neither he nor members of his office would ever utter Mercer’s name. Notably and I think not coincidentally we now know Hanlin is a gun extremist who is not only part of the far-right “constitutional sheriff’s” movement but apparently a Sandy Hook Truther – that is to say, someone who believes or is spreading the idea that the government may actually have been behind the Sandy Hook/Newtown massacre to create a groundswell of support for gun control. I don’t need to wonder why the availability of firearms doesn’t occur to Hanlin as part of the problem.

I really got to thinking about this though this afternoon when I was listening to Fox News and the announcer said over and over again that Fox or her show had chosen to respect Hanlin’s wishes and themselves not utter Mercer’s name. So Fox is on board. It’s their new version of “homicide bombers.”

For the Fox Newses and Sheriff Hanlins this is simply bad faith, an effort to find a feel good cudgel and ignore the consequences of their overriding belief in guns. For many others it is clearly a sincere effort to find something, anything to do or say in response to the country’s palpable impotence in the face of mass gun violence.

But for those acting in bad faith and those acting in misdirected good faith, the upshot is the same. The naming game is becoming a sign you’re not just being passive or indifferent. You’re doing something. Because they want publicity (which is likely part of the motive for many of these men but by no means all of it) and by not naming them you’re denying them publicity. You’re doing something. You’re taking a stand. It’s becoming an emblem of your seriousness about the issue. But of course this is all bullshit. The issue is that virtually anyone can buy any or as many guns as they want and we as a society are not willing to do anything about it.

There is no coincidence that this is coalescing as a new “thing” as it becomes increasingly clear, on all sides, that no amount of gun massacres at schools or workplaces will lead to any change whatsoever. After Sandy Hook people really thought that we’d reached a level of scale and barbarity that the scales would tip on the gun issue. But it didn’t. And with each successive massacre, it’s been harder to pretend that any level or scale of carnage would make any difference. So now that pretending can’t even pass the laugh test we’ve moved on to this pretend issue. One reader who I am not in any way trying to criticize told us today via email that we should stop naming Mercer and “could be leaders in the movement of denying these murderers the attention they crave.”

We as a society have made our decision. Monthly high profile gun massacres are the price we are willing to pay for increasingly unregulated access to guns by virtually everyone – with minor impediments for felons and people who have been adjudicated as mentally ill. If you step back from what I grant is the sincerity of many who advocate this non-naming, the whole thing is really just clearly a joke as a way to somehow take action about the growing scourge of mass gun violence.

It is a grand evasion because we need to make ourselves feel better by finding a way to think we are doing ‘something’ even though we’re unwilling to do anything that actually matters. Except for those immediately affected or those in the tightly defined communities affected we also shouldn’t give ourselves the solace of watching teary-eyed memorials or all the rest. Again, as a society we’ve made our decision. I would go so far as to say that it’s good for us to know Mercer’s name since we are in fact his accomplices. It’s good that we know each other.

We’ve made our choice. We should feel that, not play games or make excuses or come up with diversions to make ourselves feel better.

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