Names that live in infamy

Killers want notoriety. Let's not give it to them.


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David Brin
August 13, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Now it's "Buford Furrow," another name we'd much rather not know. By firing 70 bullets toward a bunch of defenseless children, he seized our attention and far more than his fair share of our collective memories.

In the recent spate of highly visible hate crimes -- from Texas and Illinois to California and Washington state -- the emerging pattern seems to be less about specific hates, racism or anti-Semitism than frenzied, bloody tantrums staged by a string of losers with a common goal -- to grab headlines. "The reason they are doing this is for their moment of glory," says Marvin Hier, who has studied the subject intensely for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, "when they feel the whole world is stopping to take notice of them."

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This trend isn't limited to hate crimes. In the chilling story of Cary Stayner -- the Yosemite killer -- we saw how one man's penchant for brutality can be sharpened by an appetite for publicity. Soon after he confessed to murdering four women in Yosemite National Park, Stayner told San Jose reporter Ted Rowlands, "I want a movie of the week." Though he admitted having murderous fantasies since childhood, Stayner may also have been propelled by a jealous wish for notoriety equal to his brother Steven, whose escape from a pedophile in the late '70s was indeed dramatized for TV.

It's an all-too-familiar pattern. The Oklahoma City terrorists, Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski, cyber-vandal Kevin Mitnick and killer Mark David Chapman all showed a yearning for attention, both in the headline-grabbing nature of their crimes and in their polemics after capture. Whatever their diverse rationalizations for wreaking harm, it also surely had a lot to do with getting noticed in an era that reveres fame.

Society appears to be trapped, obliged to pay madmen the attention they crave, in direct proportion to the hurt they do.

This is not a new problem. Two millennia ago, in the Hellenistic era, a young man torched one of the seven wonders of the ancient world -- the Temple of Diana at Ephesus. When caught and asked why, he replied first with grievances against individuals and his city state, then admitted that he really wanted to make a mark, to be remembered. Since he wasn't a great warrior, or creative person, his best chance was to gain infamy by destroying something.

Conditions are ripe for more of this. Not only has fame itself been made sacred, but countless films and novels feed a culture of resentment by extolling the image of romantic loners, battling vile institutions. On the plus side, this all-pervading mythos fosters a mild but truly healthy suspicion of authority. But when exaggerated, it becomes one of the most tedious and toxic of all modern clichis -- preaching contempt for all institutions, along with disdain for the very same tolerance and cooperative effort that sustain civilization. Now add another ingredient -- the progressive diffusion of destructive technologies into private hands -- and you get a recipe for profound unpleasantness in the years ahead.

We just don't need this trend further reinforced by the seductive lure of renown.

Are there solutions?

One answer is suggested by that fellow who burned the temple at Ephesus. He is often called Erastratos. But in fact, many scholars think that is a made-up name, used to replace his true identity, which was expunged. To punish his selfish act and deter others, the city banned speaking of him. Two millennia later, no one knows for sure who he really was.

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Were the ancients on to something? If a sociopath's attraction to villainy is partly engendered by hope for celebrity, might an "Erastratos law" take away some of the allure, by ensuring the opposite?

Of course things work differently today. Coerced forgetfulness is out of the question in a free society. Newspapers and journalists would have to participate voluntarily. Instead of suppressing actual facts, which are needed for accountability, good results might be achieved simply by making adjustments in style and presentation. After all, reporters assented, en masse, when Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh asked to be called "Tim" and the Unabomber said "call me Ted" instead of Theodore. If journalists accommodate murderers in this small way -- as a reflex of professional courtesy -- why can't they lean a bit the other direction, after someone is convicted of gross felonies in a court of law?

Courts already do have some authority to order name-changes. Suppose that power were widened -- any criminal sentenced for a truly heinous crime could be renamed as part of his punishment, with a moniker that invites disdain. New history books might state: "Robert F. Kennedy was slain in 1968 by Doofus 25 *." The asterisk is there to let anyone find the assassin's former name in a footnote, if they are truly interested, so no one is actually suppressing knowledge. Nevertheless, the emphasis on a new moniker will take hold.

Who would choose the new names? Judges could get creative, or the public might be invited to suggest appropriate derogations.

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However it's done, won't it make sense for ridicule to replace some of the grotesque fashionableness that's now attached to terror? It would reflect society's determination to allocate fame properly, to those who earn it. We would be saying -- "You can't win celebrity this way. By harming innocents, you're only destroying your own name."

The idea may seem odd, at first. Maybe even needlessly vindictive. But I promise it will grow more appealing each time the cycle is repeated by some murderous loony who demands our attention with both violence and contempt. Pragmatically speaking, it could contribute to breaking today's vicious feedback loop by denying sociopaths the attention they crave, perhaps even tempting them to seek help. (Help we all-too-often fail to provide. But that's another, much harder subject.)

Moreover, this approach to deterrence may give us -- civilization's rambunctious, argumentative, yet cooperative citizens -- the last laugh. We can catch, punish and outlast them, of course. But above all we'll deny villains any chance to win through violence a bigger place in history than the hard-working, creative people they hurt and despise.

Who knows? Some of those angry ones out there, who are teetering in indecision with each desperate day, may even decide that it's better to help lay a few bricks, alongside the rest of us, than to claw after infamy by tearing the walls down.

If they do -- if they choose to join us -- we should try to welcome them. And learn their names.


David Brin

David Brin is an astrophysicist whose international best-selling novels include "Earth," and recently "Existence." " The Postman" was filmed in 1997. His nonfiction book about the information age - The Transparent Society - won the Freedom of Speech Award of the American Library Association.  (http://www.davidbrin.com)

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