What we do subsequent to conscious planning tends to most fully reflect the global properties of our minds—our beliefs, desires, goals, prejudices, etc. If, after weeks of deliberation, library research, and debate with our friends, you still decide to kill the king—well, then killing the king really reflects the sort of person you are. Consequently, it makes sense for the rest of society to worry about you.

Sam Harris

The Moral Landscape

Intentions matter. Following an atrocity, whatever the scale, the motivations for what came to pass matter because they constitute the best data for predicting how an antagonist will behave in the future. We only discover these motivations by understanding the antagonists, and to begin to understand them, we must know who they are.

October 2017 saw the publishing of an open letter addressed to Members of the Media in the Unites States, and signed by Steven Pinker among almost 150 other “scholars, professors, and law enforcement professionals” on the subject of how the media should cover mass killings. It asks the following: “Don’t name the perpetrator”; “Don’t use photos or likenesses of the perpetrator”; “Stop using the names, photos, or likenesses of past perpetrators”; and “Report everything else about these crimes in as much detail as desired.”

The arguments contained in the letter, invoking the need “to stop giving fame-seeking mass shooters the personal attention they want”, are very good ones, made with the most noble of intentions in the expectation that this policy will “deter some future fame-seekers from attacking.” My position here, evidently unpopular as it may be, is in opposition to this argument. I submit that there is in fact a baby at risk in this bathwater, and that the principles it stands for are actually worth saving.

Pinker observed in his excellent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, that “The most common motives for homicide are moralistic: retaliation after an insult escalation of a domestic quarrel, punishing an unfaithful or deserting romantic partner, and other acts of jealousy, revenge and self-defense.” This point has important implications for how we receive news of killings. It brings to mind a key distinction concerning the pertinence of who the victim was, or who the victims were, in a given homicide. Either who they were, particularly in relation to the perpetrator, was a relevant factor in why they were killed, or it wasn’t.

(Depressingly enough, modernity dictates that I should point out at this stage that the above imparts no responsibility upon a given victim, nor does it alleviate the guilt of the perpetrator. To say that these killings are “moralistic” is not to say that they are “moral”.)

However uncomfortable the fact may be to confront, and whatever it says about the deep-rooted selfishness of our nature as human beings, the thought that arises runs to consider: “does this pose a risk to me?” There are likely sound evolutionary explanations for this phenomenon. Clearly, self-interest in matters of personal safety, and a well-honed (even hyper-active) perception of mortal risk, would have been adaptive and naturally selected in the interest of the gene’s survival into the next round.

The phenomenon of rubber-necking on the road when passing a serious collision may also be a manifestation of this disposition. We have experienced the odd sensation of being unable to look away from something, no matter how unpleasant the sight was, and again this may have been adaptive. The instinct to stare at, and to learn from, the demise of our neighbours, might have been a source of data on our environment’s dangers which could have led us in aggregate to avoid those dangers in the wake of the misfortune of others. We are here because every generation which preceded, back to the dawn of life itself, survived long enough to reproduce. The ability of selfish genes to produce selfless individuals notwithstanding, often the survival interests of a gene and its vehicle align, and our instinctive if non-verbal considerations when hearing of homicides attest to this.

Thus, our attention may be less divided when the killings about which we are reading are not moralistic, and where the victims have no connection to the perpetrator. The question as to whether there is a risk to oneself is less easily dismissed. Tragic though a domestic murder may be, we reassure ourselves upon learning the motivation for the killing that there was some context to it (not justification), and that it is only explicable in light of this context. Where the victims are randomly selected and the venue is a public one, an acknowledgement inevitably arises which says, “that could have been me”. No doubt this accounts in part for the effectiveness of terrorism as a strategy.

I have written about a similar point previously on the subject of hate crime. There, I suggested that that the perpetrator’s selection of a victim because of what they are as opposed to what they did was an aggravating feature of the offence as a matter of both principle and practice. It is the former by dint of the motivation being hatred or prejudice, and the heightened culpability this implies. It is the latter because of the implications it holds for society as a whole.

Consider two murderers: one killed their victim out of rage, having discovered the affair with their spouse; the other killed their victim out of hatred for people of victim’s race. As a matter of practice, we can ask what predictions we can make about each murderer’s behaviour in future, and what risk they might pose to society if released. We can understand that it was a particular set of circumstances which lead to the murder in the first case, and might expect an absence of future murders without similar circumstances arising. In the second case, we understand that the race of the victim was sufficient motivation for the murder, thus we can expect similar results when faced with more members of that race. The second case is clearly one with a higher risk to society, and thus warrants a lengthier sentence, even if only to meet the objective of public protection.

Mass, indiscriminate killings, however, also fall on a spectrum of various motivations. The pertinent distinction for our discussion concerns whether the motivations are personal, and isolated to an individual’s grievances (whether or not other individuals may hold similar motivations applicable to them); or ideological, where the attack as part of a wider cause to which others are aligned.

Read through the available publications of sentencing remarks following convictions for murder, which are available online, and you’ll witness a judge’s forensic analysis of a perpetrator’s life and the factors which led to the culmination of the killing. A judge will always tell a convict that the mandatory sentence is life imprisonment, but that the law requires a weighing of aggravating and mitigating features in order to set a minimum term of imprisonment before eligibility for parole. This is an example of our process of learning from such calamities. Recommendations may follow for public services where failures to prevent such killings were evident.

There is also a presumption that, unless particular circumstances exist, the perpetrator’s name will be published. This is in the interest of open justice. Never mind the obvious danger of a state convicting innocent citizens in secret trials, where no opportunity for extra-judicial investigations which might exonerate them exists; there is also another important aspect of this principle. It allows the members of a society to absorb the contributing factors leading to such atrocities into a wider consciousness. We are, albeit sometimes to our detriment, very good at recognising patterns. It is in our recognition of such patterns that policies to curb the factors may be borne.

For instance, we might recognise after another fatal stabbing of a teenager in London that the perpetrators in these similar offences have factors in their lives which run in common, be they related to gang culture, drugs, education, or any other relevant variable. If we do not publish the names of these perpetrators, so that we can discover the pertinent points within their existences which feed into these patterns, we seriously hinder our ability to implement policies based on empiricism and analysis. Furthermore, the availability of this knowledge within the public domain is another safeguard against the prospect of a rogue government, promising its citizens that its policies are not malevolent, without any opportunity for independent and public scrutiny. There are good reasons for the data held by the Office for National Statistics to be publicly available.

For the longest time, since we outsourced our retributive justice to some central arbiter, the ability for an antagonist to embark on a mass-killing was nothing like it is today. This does not, however, in my submission, affect the principles at play. In the era of automatic weapons and ideologies willing to adapt the use of motor vehicles to murderous ends, it would serve us well to ensure that we make proper public examinations of our antagonists so that we can best understand their motives and know, crucially, whether they constitute a symptom of a wider malady.

I have explained why understanding the motivations for an atrocity, particularly where they fall on a dichotomy—personal or ideological—are of paramount importance to us as a society. There seems, however, to also be a political variable imposing itself on the publication of this information where the ideology in question is Islamic.

Take, for instance, the mass-killing which took place last week at the Police Headquarters in Paris. When the news broke, the BBC’s headline read: “Four killed by knife-wielding employee”. The Article, which led as the top story on the website for most of the day, said “police union officials have suggested the attacker may have been involved in a workplace dispute” and that “There were tensions between the knifeman and his supervisor, according to police union official Christopher Crepin.” Who told Franceinfo Radio, “I do not think this is a terrorist act.” It then says, “Police union leader Jean-Marc Bailleul described it as a criminal act, telling BFMTV: ‘It was a moment of madness.’”

And yet, when it transpired that the “Attacker [Mickael Harpon] showed signs of ‘radicalisation’”, that he “adhered to a radical version of Islam”, that he “had contact with members of the Salafist movement”, and that he had “defended the deadly 2015 attack on the magazine Charlie Hebdo and other atrocities”; constituting the crucial information as to the antagonist’s motivations and the arising implications for the wider society, the article didn’t make its way to the main page. Examples of this abound, and they detract from our ability to perceive the nature of what threat might actually be posed. Furthermore, the very fact of this phenomenon is itself a (meta) variable in this issue: as distrust in the media proliferates, individuals willing to weaponise the narrative will have the advantage of an absent credible fact-checking mechanism to counter them.

I am in no doubt that one of the main objectives of any mass-murderer, where the attack is not driven by ideology, is notoriety. There are many psychological factors which feed into this, and there must be some appeal for someone who feels (legitimately or otherwise) perpetually ignored, rejected and insignificant, to be able to remove the freedom from society to not have their identity imposed on them. The idea of achieving the craved attention, with the added satisfaction of perceived retribution on a society that somehow “wronged” them, must hold a great gravitational pull.

However, our antagonists are not all the same. While the end result—death, injury etc.—have the same tragic ramifications for the victims and their families, the effects on their communities and wider society turn much more consequentially on the motivations for the atrocity. To hope to combat a given problem we must first understand it. Naming the terrorists and mass-murderers is just the beginning. We must do all we can to understand them so that we can identify the causes, be they ideological, mental health-related or comprised of any other variable. I submit that the incidental notoriety that gives some of our antagonists what they want, might well be a price worth paying in the long-game of preventing future atrocities.