NEW YORK "Just think tho," wrote the 19-year-old Omaha shooter in his suicide note. "I'm gonna be (expletive) famous." And he was, at least for a while.
Should the media have denied Robert Hawkins the odious fame he coveted, by refusing to identify him by name? It's an intriguing idea, and one that's been suggested by several media columnists since the rampage earlier this month.
After all, the theory goes, why give such killers, even in death, precisely what they wished for? And in the long run, if we didn't name them, maybe the next deranged loner who wanted to go out in a blaze of glory wouldn't pull the trigger, because it wouldn't be worth it.
"We in the communications world practically enabled the kid by giving him, posthumously, what he wanted all along," wrote media analyst Jon Friedman, one of several media voices in recent weeks to suggest a no-name policy. "Shame on us. ... Show some class and guts, folks. Please."
Yet as much as it may appeal to our sense of justice, there are at least three forceful arguments against the idea. The first goes to the nature of journalism and its duty to inform the public as completely as possible about events that affect it.
Another, according to a number of criminologists and forensic psychologists, is that it wouldn't work as a deterrent to other deranged loners out there, who are usually more interested in the crime itself than the person who committed it.
And finally there's the practical argument: Even if the news media agreed unanimously to withhold the name, who'd be able to stop the rampant speculation across the Web, speculation that could cause harm via rumor and innuendo?
"I'm ambivalent," says Shawn Johnston, a forensic psychologist in independent practice in Sacramento, Calif. "On the one hand I want to know who these buggers are. On the other, the notion that they'd be denied this flash of meteoric fame there's the justice of it: All right, you sociopathic creep. Nobody's going to know where YOUR grave is!"
Could keeping the offender nameless reduce the probability of copycat crimes? Perhaps, but only a bit, says Johnston: "It would be ludicrous to suggest that this would seriously reduce this sort of crime." Far more than a desire for fame, Johnston says, what unites these perpetrators is "raging anger, and narcissism. It's young men who fall in love with their rage, and it turns their hearts and souls black."
Criminology professor James Alan Fox, author of five books on mass killers, thinks withholding names would be almost irrelevant, because people rarely remember the names much anyway. How many, he asks, can even cite the names of the Columbine High School killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, or that of Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech killer?
"It's the place that people remember," says Fox, of Northeastern University. And of course, the crimes themselves. What inspires copycats, he says, "is the act, not the celebrity of the actor."
Moreover, says another criminologist, in order to believe that any change in the media's approach would have a deterrent effect, one would have to presume that potential mass killers are thinking rationally. That's quite a hard generalization to make.
"In crime prevention you need to focus on issues like safety and security," says Kristy Holtfreter of Florida State University. "For example, making it more difficult to get weapons into a public place as opposed to something that would have a more negligible effect like not naming the shooter."
Friedman, who raised the issue on MarketWatch.com, says he can't predict what the ramifications might be on potential mass killers. All he knows is he feels "dirty" when he sees the name being published. Others have voiced similar concerns. "I want to deny him what he wanted, the way he denied life to eight innocent victims," wrote columnist Michael Mayo on Sun-Sentinel.com. Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn called for "a media blackout an agreement among responsible publications and broadcasters to use the name and image of such killers as sparingly as possible."