I managed to avoid most news about the mass shooting that occurred in Las Vegas this week, but it has been at the front of my mind. There were breaking news updates almost every hour, every day, but I didn’t click. I don’t know and still don’t want to know the gunman’s name. (I won’t use it here unless my editor tells me I have to.)
I was frustrated by the the breaking news updates, which was strange because I used to love being a breaking news reporter. I know the rush of unearthing a piece of information no one else has, of typing as fast as you can to get it out — the pride of being first. But something about this news cycle has changed that for me. I don’t care that the shooter was a gambler, or a loner, that he was cruel to his girlfriend in his local Starbucks, or otherwise unremarkable as he purchased multiple firearms. I don’t see what value that information has for the public.
Even as I type this, I know I’m wrong. Horrible, shocking events like mass shootings scare us, and information soothes us. On Monday, I asked an editor at a national news site, “Why did he do it?” He responded, “We’ll never know.” There was enough known about the shooter on day one to know he was as incomprehensible as the violence he perpetrated. That’s when I stopped paying attention. I know these little details, these constant updates, are attempts to create order out of chaos. I also know that effort is futile, and that futility frustrates me. The barrage of updates serves only to keep the horror in the national discourse.
Breaking news reporting is important in a crisis, but in the aftermath it can feel like someone scratching a wound. Or worse, it can produce bad, harmful reporting, like when the Las Vegas Review-Journal made a fuss about the Vegas shooter having a Valium prescription and cited the website drugabuse.com as a source. The Hill picked up the story and cited drugs.com as a source. (A good rule of thumb for journalism is if you couldn’t use something as a source in a college paper, it probably doesn’t pass muster.) Neither outlet had spoken to the shooter’s doctor, friends or family to ask what prompted him to start taking the drug, if he took it as prescribed, if he was regularly in touch with his prescriber, as is recommended when you first start a new medication. Valium has been on the market since the early 1960s, and was the most-prescribed drug during the 1970s. If Valium turned people into murderers, it’s hard to imagine we wouldn’t know by now.
Earlier this year, I reported on the death of Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam and the speculation she had committed suicide. I dug up a 1989 Center for Disease Control report on media depictions of suicide, which included advice to healthcare providers and public officials, as well as to reporters: “Health-care providers should realize that efforts to prevent news coverage may not be effective, and their goal should be to assist news professionals in their efforts toward responsible and accurate reporting,” they advised. “’No comment’ is not a productive response to media representatives who are covering a suicide story … Nevertheless, public officials should not feel obligated to provide an immediate answer to difficult questions.”
It’s human nature to want answers. Dylann Roof was racist; the San Bernardino shooters were radicalized jihadis; Omar Mateen, the Pulse nightclub shooter, also claimed to support ISIS, although there was no evidence he’d been in contact with the terror group. But Masha Gessen wrote in the New Yorker this week that we must resist these easy labels.
We fight terrorism all wrong. We elevate the accused terrorist and proceed to destroy him. Turning the inhumane, illogical, and often extralegal weapons of this war against yet more enemies would serve only to degrade our legal and political culture further. It may also heighten the appeal of senseless violence, by imbuing it with meaning.
The act of ascribing meaning is reassuring for the public, too. Calling an attack “terrorism” helps to distance it, by placing it in an intelligible category and helping to imagine the perpetrator as a superhuman monster. Viewing him as a regular person who needs no particular beliefs, affiliation, or label—or even a gun license—to kill dozens of people makes us feel utterly defenseless. We are.
There are still things we can know. On rare occasions, we can talk to the shooter’s friends, or dig up police reports, like Michael LaForgia did at The Tampa Bay Times after the Florida State University shooting in 2014, and come out with an actual understanding of what happened. We can know about the trauma the people who witnessed the Vegas attack suffered, by focusing on the victims, like Amanda Fortini did this week for the New Yorker. We can retrace the witnesses and participants decades later, like Pamela Colloff did at Texas Monthly in her 2006 story on the 1966 clocktower shooting by Charles Whitman at the University of Texas at Austin, the deadliest mass shooting of its time.
But it’s much more common that we don’t know a killer’s motive, and that we never will. Without an ideology to point to, top Republicans, and even the National Rifle Association, appear to be open to banning a type of gun conversion kit that the Vegas shooter used to increase the number of people he murdered. As policy, it’s too small, too late, and too little, but it shows that work can be done in a space with few answers.