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Media amplifies New Zealand shooting suspect's 'manifesto,' giving mass killers a platform

JameJames Alan Fox, Opinion columnist
Published 4:38 p.m. ET March 15, 2019 | Updated 6:56 p.m. ET March 15, 2019

A mass killer doesn't want to be remembered as just some nut. Coverage of their personal writings and so-called 'manifestos' indulge that delusion.
Many of the details surrounding the hideous slaughter of dozens of innocent victims at a pair of New Zealand mosques are still unclear. However, one key element " the underlying motivation for the attack " is distressingly obvious, outlined in a lengthy diatribe filled with hatred for minorities and immigrants as well as those who endeavor to assist and protect them.

I have only skimmed the online document by the alleged gunman, identified as 28-year-old Brenton Tarrant. Despite the vague title, "The Great Replacement,v it doesn't take very long to become sickened by this man's ugly ideas and explicit directives for like-minded white supremacists to execute specific politicians on the left.

It has become fairly common for mass killers, both the political and pathological, to post online or by mail an explanation for their crimes. Through letters, manuscripts, or videos, they want us to know that they have a bonafide reason for murder " by their way of thinking, it is justifiable homicide. They do not wish to be seen or remembered, if deceased, as just some nut who killed innocent strangers for no good reason.

Besides my abhorrence for the substance, it is hardly worth my time to read "The Great Replacement" from cover to cover. I get it, the author feels marginalized and wronged because he is being denied advantages supposedly promised by virtue of his race.

Media coverage gives killers a platform

Various social media have taken appropriate steps to remove the hater's online footprint. Unfortunately, the conventional media is giving this undeserving hate monger a platform and a wide audience by quoting from sections of the document. Thanks to telling excerpts, millions around the world are now aware of this man's apparent point of view, far more than the limited readership of his vitriol posted online in advance of the killing spree.

It is also inappropriate to label documents like this as a "manifesto." It is a term typically used with regard to an important political statement crafted by a public official or a person of prominence, not a mass murderer.

This practice started when the Washington Post and New York Times published, under coercion, Theodore Kaczynski's 35,000 word thesis, which actually was titled, "The Unabomber Manifesto." Since then, the term has been regularly misapplied to killer communiques.

Charleston, South Carolina, mass killer Dylann Roof himself indicated that the media should stop characterizing his writings as a manifesto. As for "The Great Replacement," the word "manifesto" appears just once in the entire document, but not in the context of describing the work.

Don't overplay a killer's biography

I have long insisted that the news media should indeed publicize the names and images of mass killers, a position contrary to a large number of my colleagues in criminology. That limited information hardly promotes celebrity. However, following up with excessive details about the killer's lifestyle and belief system tends to humanize the assailant and can invigorate others of like minds.

In addition to downplaying the words of a hate monger, we shouldn't overstate the notion that the alleged New Zealand gunman was "inspired" by Dylann Roof or even Norway's Anders Breivik. He may have endorsed their ideas and respected their violent acts that were designed to eliminate a hated minority group. But he certainly didn't need them to establish his own murderous plan. The concept of killing a perceived threat or enemy is hardly a modern-day creation.

In the coming days, we should hear heart-wrenching stories about the victims " what they believed in and what they meant to family and fellow worshipers. We already understand the detestable ideology that prompted this hate crime. We need not know more about the assailant's biography, as that would serve no real purpose and literally add insult to injury.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University and a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors. He is co-author of Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder.  Follow him on Twitter @jamesalanfox.

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