The troubling thing about people is that if you throw a torchlight parade, people will join in. If you hand out armbands, they will take them. And if you tell them to kill someone else or themselves, some of them will do it. Not all of them, but enough of them to make for a bloody ugly scene. Most dictators already know this. So do most reporters. And both use the phenomenon for their own purposes.
“No man is an island entire of itself,” John Donne wrote, “every man is a piece of the continent.” And some pieces of the continent are more easily invaded than others. Some of the peninsulas in the gulf are very suggestible indeed.
Suicides spike after front page coverage of a suicide. After Marilyn Monroe’s death, 197 more people killed themselves than the statistical norm. Suicides rise even after fictional suicides on soap operas. And murders are also influenced by the coverage of real and fictional murders. The rise in the number of shootings after a heavily publicized shooting isn’t a mysterious conspiracy, it’s Werthers being Werther or Lanza or Holmes; identifying with the method of dealing with their frustrations, if not the man.
The Young Werthers and the Holden Caufields, and their many modern literary and cinematic counterparts, whether they kill themselves or not, represent a violent shift to the wrong track, a forceful break with convention and the demands of their society. By breaking with expectations and obligations they achieve a measure of freedom. They even become role models. Rebels without a cause who seem more alive because they reject conformity and society, and follow their passions and energies, even if they occasionally end up dead.
Their real life counterparts may lack their artificial appeal, but they still spread ripples in the pond that add up to patterns of death. And their accomplices promote their legends on the evening news, laying out every detail of their violent break with conformity for those who might consider following in their footsteps. And the violence spreads.
People are not mere machines who repeat back what they are given, but nor are ideas empty signals shouted into a void. Society is built on such signals. As is civilization. And it is foolish to pretend that the streams of communications that surround and connect those islands do not also influence the direction in which they drift. In a society where fame is the object, media coverage acts as both reward and punishment. And like any other training method, it produces its results.
Stick a photo of a man about to be hit by a train on the cover of a citywide newspaper, and more people will be pushed under trains and jump under trains. Spend weeks making a mass shooter famous and others will decide that resolving their problems with a shooting spree makes sense. Bad ideas are like bad signals, even if disapproved of, they are imitated if they are broadcast loudly enough. And the modern media is a deafeningly loud broadcast mechanism with few standards and many cynical and hypocritical agendas.
That does not mean that we ought to push the 1st Amendment under the train, the way that the media has been trying to do to the 2nd Amendment, but it does call for soul-searching and responsibility not by the people who make guns or defend the right to carry them, as the media insists, but by the people who make school shootings and subway suicides. The people who insist that everyone must search their souls, but them.
Stephen King, who recently jumped into the fray with his own gun control screed, was credited with inspiring one of the first clusters of school shootings in the United States. To his credit, King has wrestled with the question, withdrawing “Rage” from sale and conceding that it had an incendiary effect on troubled minds. To his discredit, King has used that action to argue that gun owners, manufacturers and civil rights groups should agree to a ban on the mythical assault rifle.
Ideas are more powerful than weapons. Weapons can kill a man, but ideas can cause a man to kill. Nevertheless the United States is a country built on the premise that ideas and weapons should be available to all. We are a country with high capacity magazines of both kinds. That experiment in human liberty is a dangerous one, and even though some Americans get on the wrong track, whether it’s the left-wing terrorists who haunted America in the last century or the spree killers who trouble it now, it is a profoundly worthy experiment because it allows us to choose who we are.