May 10, 2011
The images from that two-story slum of a compound are eerily familiar. Osama bin Laden appears, wrapped in a blanket, hunkered down in his bunker, remote in hand, and watching re-runs of his greatest hits. How squalid. How very predictable.
Readers of James Swansons outstanding history, Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincolns Killer, will recognize the scene. In that book, Swanson relates how John Wilkes Booth was holed up in the woods in southern Maryland a full week after he assassinated the president. Dirty, unshaven, hungry, and suffering acute pain from his broken leg, Booth craved one thing above everything else: newspapers. Like the famous actor he was, he wanted to read the reviews of his most spectacular performance.
That Booth would kill Lincoln in a crowded theater tells us volumes about the mindset of these assassins. John Wilkes Booth might have presented his calling card to the White House usher any day of the four years that Lincoln was president. As one of the most famous Shakespearean actors in America, Booth would doubtless have been admitted to the presidents office. Lincoln, after all, was an avid theatergoer and he could quote long passages from Shakespeare. John Wilkes Booth might then have pulled out his bulldog derringer from his waistcoat and shot the president as he sat at his desk.
But that would not have served Booths craving for attention. Imagine the horror this young man felt as hid in those bushes and read his notices in the newspapers. He found himself condemned, not just in the Northern newspapers, but roundly condemned by the Southern papers, too.
Had he really wanted to serve the South, he could easily have slipped through Union lines and volunteered to go into battle with Lees Army of Northern Virginia. That would have required self sacrifice and subordinating his ego to the cause of Southern independence. That much, Booth was unwilling to do.
We are forever getting this stuff wrong. We keep thinking we will learn something in delving into the twisted psyches of these vicious killers. Thats why NBC News decided to air the video made by the Virginia Tech killer in 2007. Bill Bennett sharply criticized the news division at that time, asking pointedly what we learned from giving the publicity craving killer what he wanted. Did we learn he was crazed? Did we learn that he had delusions he was being persecuted? Did we learn he was filled with violent hatreds?
Did we ever doubt that?
Observing anniversaries of mass shootings, employing the term massacre, and calling them the biggest, the worst, the most only incites hate-filled and violent killers.
And finding the hidden motivation of these deranged persons also fulfills a media longing for root causes. If Congresswoman Giffordsassailant had ever been seen near a TEA party rally, you may well imagine what the media reaction would have been. Similarly, what if the Oklahoma City bomber had ever joined the campus YRs?
Instead of all this pointless and repetitive analysis, I recommend reading Dostoevskis classic Crime and Punishment. There, you will get inside the killers brain. You will find in Raskolnikovs mind all you need to know about killers motivation. It might not seem as exciting to have a penurious young Russian split the skull of his grasping landlady. He took the axe he had secreted inside his heavy overcoat in early nineteenth century Saint Petersburg. Thats hardly something to inspire the same morbid fascination as the Hitler Channel, but as this killer confessed in his self analysis, Napoleon, the slayer of millions, had to start somewhere.
You may note that I havent listed the names of the Virginia Tech, Oklahoma City, or Tucson killers. That would be a good place to start if we really wanted to learn something from mass murderers: Deny them any publicity, any notoriety in this world or the next. Its their oxygen.
Writer Bob Morrison served for three years in the federal education department where he researched suicide among youth.