Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Fame Factor

Published in The American Spectator on December 10, 2007

“Now I'll be famous,” wrote 19-year-old Robert Hawkins the other day before murdering eight people at the Westroads shopping mall in Omaha and then killing himself. Now that, two days later, the New York Times is reporting on those who are “searching for clues to a young killer's motivations,” you've got to wonder why anyone would need more “clues” than that? “In the aftermath of the shooting, the picture that began to emerge of Mr. Hawkins included familiar images,” wrote Jeff Zeleny and Eric Konigsberg for the Times, ” — a young man facing depression, alienation, abandonment, rejection — but plenty of pieces that did not entirely fit together. Several people who knew him described him as an outgoing young man who would offer hugs to cheer others.” Fascinating! If only we can figure out the exact proportions of depression, alienation, abandonment, rejection and hug-offering that went into the Hawkins mix, we might be able to predict when the next wacko youth is going to blow his top and start killing people.

Yet isn't it strange that the Times reporters don't even mention the motivation cited by the boy himself? What about the desire to be famous? What about the belief that by killing a bunch of his neighbors at random before killing himself he was going to “go out in style”? Are these not worth a moment's consideration? Don't they sound plausible “motivations” when we see every day what people — particularly young people — are willing to do for fame? Didn't the Virginia Tech shooter last April have a similar motivation? What about the “YouTube killer” in Finland only last month? “His internet postings,” wrote a reporter for the London Sunday Times, “suggest an unhappy adolescent who felt that an act of supreme, nihilistic violence would free him from his misery and win him the accolade of fame, at least among the devotees who followed his ramblings online.”

Most importantly, didn't both young men win, by the reporting of the New York Times and other media, the fame they sought? Do you suppose that that could have had anything to do with the reluctance of the Times and other media to look for a motivation which depended on the assumption that they themselves would be willing accessories to and abettors of the ambitions of the fame seekers? In the same way, when the Virginia Tech killer sent a videotape of his ramblings to NBC News last April, NBC hesitated for about half a minute before deciding to broadcast it (or selections from it) while at the same time engaging in a similar sort of disingenuous dissociation of its own actions from the allegedly mysterious motivations of the deranged but not deluded killer. He and the Omaha shooter both may have been crazy — the latter “had a history of mental health problems” according to the Washington Post — but neither of them was wrong in expecting to win by their actions the only kind of fame they could understand. Not for the first time, I refer the reader to that invaluable little book by Albert Borowitz, Terrorism for Self-Glorification: The Herostratos Syndrome (Kent State University Press, 2005).

Any attempt to understand the “motivations” of a criminal is likely to mask an implicit apology for him, a half-submerged argument that a share of the blame must be borne by those against whom he has treasured up his grievances — particularly if they can be made conveniently anonymous under the cover of such vague entities as “society” or “the system.” If only the neglectful parents or the jilting girlfriend or the hard-hearted boss, if indeed society itself, had stroked and petted him and made much of him instead of making him cross with them, then we may allow ourselves to suppose he would never have done such awful things. It's comforting to believe that there are reasons behind what would otherwise be unforgivable acts because reasons make us feel in control again. If evil can be explained it can also be prevented, at least theoretically, and so we lose something of that vertiginous sense of helplessness that makes it so uniquely horrible.

But if the hunt for “motivations” is suspect, the hunt for influences may be more productive. “Don't blame the movies I see, the music I hear, the games I play or the books I read,” wrote the Finnish killer as part of his “massacre manifesto” on YouTube, and there are far too many who seem eager to take him at his word. “Blame” is not the right word here for the reasons mentioned above. It would suggest some diminution of the blame that must be assigned to the killer himself. But the influence on him, as on the Omaha and Virginia Tech murderers. of movies, music and games cannot be doubted. How else to explain the most recent killer's belief that by perpetrating random slaughter he would “go out in style”? Where might he have acquired such a curious notion of “style” apart from the morally de-contextualized, aesthetically-conceived violence in the movies of Quentin Tarantino and others? Our popular culture may not have created the monsters of Columbine, Blacksburg, Tuusula, Finland, and Omaha, but it certainly created their sense of style.

–James Bowman is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, media essayist for the New Criterion, and The American Spectator's movie critic. He is the author of the recent book, Honor: A History (Encounter Books).

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