Not wanting to know the criminals' names?

I’ve noticed, particularly on Facebook, that after some particularly grievous, horrific crime – the Boston Marathon bombing, the Sandy Hook, CT elementary school shootings, the Aurora, CO movie theater shootings – there is this contingent of folks who argue that we ought not mention the names of the accused, but should instead focus solely on the victims. It’s as though by not saying the names of the perpetrators, or alleged ones, it would deny them the fame they presumably wanted; this phenomenon exists even when the presumed criminal is already dead, such as in Sandy Hook situation. And this call for a wall of silence, on Facebook especially, seems particularly insistent.

In my lifetime, I don’t remember people saying we oughtn’t top mention the name of Lee Harvey Oswald (presumed killer of JFK) or Albert DeSalvo (the Boston Strangler). The first time I ever recall hearing this involved the killing of John Lennon, where certain fans, even writing about his death, to this day, won’t mention Mark David Chapman, as though, by not mentioning him, it would undo the events of December 8, 1980.

On the other hand, there’s another contingent out there who seem to relish the blow-by-blow of crimes, many of which I don’t know how they became national news. I read that Jodi Arias was convicted of murder last month, and that it was heavily covered by CNN, especially by that legal vulture Nancy Grace – her I do not like – yet I have no idea why this particular case is so significant (and don’t care to find out).

In this group seems to be the folks who debated where Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s remains should be buried; he was the elder brother accused in the Boston Marathon bombing. Frankly, I thought this was rather bizarre. There have been worse criminals who nevertheless have been interred.

It seems that if we don’t know the motivation and methodology of some of these major crimes, we can’t have that supposed “national debate” on gun control, mental health, and violence generally. But some of the blow-by-blow seems merely of prurient interest, and unbecoming. One wants a balance; of course, where that balance lies varies greatly among the citizenry.

6 thoughts on “Not wanting to know the criminals' names?”

  1. I agree the blow-by-blow is terrible. It can compromise a case; encourage the killer (e.g. Zodiac, BTK); and lead to false accusations (such as that poor Brown student that killed himself).

    I’d say that most reporting on individual crimes are mere prurient gossip and what’s needed are larger, more expansive coverage of the analysis of types of crimes (gun violence, gang violence, etc.) so that we can have an informed national debate.


  2. American media has taught us not only how to be good little consumers and that we must have instant gratification, but we have become some of the world’s greatest Gossips; I think the OJ Simpson arrest was a watershed in this. We are a petty nation of stimulus junkies.


  3. I agree, gossiping is the national pastime in some circles, and it disgusts me. Like “outing” people for no reason, like using grossly offensive pejoratives.

    I would say the only reason FOR not publishing the names of perps is that it would afford them the anonymity and obscurity they so richly deserve. I don’t believe in the death penalty, and Timothy McVeigh not only died believing he was a martyr; we all know his name and connect it with OK City.

    The media really blew it in Boston, and Katie Couric, interviewing an older mom until her monitors were beeping in the background, then pressing with more questions, revealed what a perverted little imp she really is. Scuzzy. Amy


  4. In the United States of America crimes are a public matter, because crimes are committed against the people of the USA. Lately the corporate and government elites are trying to take criminal justice out of the public sphere and make it solely a matter handled by the secretive corporate bureaucracy, no public involved. For example, witness the secret sections of the so-called “Patriot” Act, which everybody all of a sudden seems to have remembered about these past few weeks.

    Not publishing the names of criminals feeds into this secrecy and exclusion. If you believe in secret justice, then I say it’s time for you to pack your bags and move to North Korea. And take all the rest of the corporate elites with you. And don’t come back.


  5. There are two aspects to this: First, there’s the gossip and speculation about potential suspects. The problem, as with the Boston Marathon bombings, is that people can get it very wrong. I’m not entirely sure how that can be stopped in the US, apart from people—journalists included—growing up and acting more responsibly.

    The other aspect involves not publishing the name of an arrested suspect. Many countries block publishing details about an accused person for at least a period of time.

    Here in New Zealand, for example, a person arrested for a crime is not named at the time. S/he appears before a judge fairly quickly and they can ask for name suppression. This is often granted. When a suppression order is in place, no media outlet—including bloggers and users of social media—can legally name the accused. Sometimes, nothing at all about the accused can be mentioned (things like occupation, hometown, etc) if doing so could lead to the public working our who the accused is.

    At some point, the suppression order expires or is lifted, except that in some specific cases—especially rape and child molestation—it can be made permanent. The motivations for temporary and permanent are quite different.

    Temporary orders are used to assure the accused gets a fair trial by preventing media speculation about a case that might prejudice potential jurors.

    Permanent suppression orders are used to protect victims, particularly children and victims of sexual abuse. There’s a lot of debate over whether this is a good idea or not, particularly because it makes it easier for sexual predators to move about with no one any the wiser.

    The point is, there’s an alternative to a free-for-all with gossip-driven speculation possibly preventing a fair trial or accusing innocent people of crimes they didn’t commit. It’s a difficult balance to strike, certainly, but I prefer New Zealand’s more cautious approach to naming criminal suspects, even if that caution sometimes may go too far. Seems to be the goal should be justice, not entertainment.


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