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OPINION: The ‘benefits’ of mass killings

Lo Snelgrove, CU News Corps

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Blood and horror. Senseless violence. Public death. Not many people would disagree that mass killings are awful occurrences.

But some people benefit from them.

Friday afternoon, Aurora theater shooter James Holmes was sentenced to life in prison. The jury could have — if they’d unanimously agreed — chosen execution for the mass murderer. And had the prosecution not sought the death penalty, the shooter would have spent life in prison without the necessity of a 64-days-long, emotionally draining trial.

Initially, the shooter pled guilty and was ready to go to prison for the remainder of his days. His plea changed to not guilty by reason of insanity after the prosecution said they’d be seeking execution. Three years after the shooting and at the conclusion of the trial, none of the victims or their families have said they’ve found closure but many have said the trial forced them to relive the tragic night of July 20, 2012, and for some it evoked additional pain and grief.

“I never knew grief could be physically painful,” Tom Teves, father of victim Alex Teves, said at the midpoint of the trial. “It never gets easier.”

Victims ached while the shooter had an in-pouring of attention and amplified notoriety. Women sent him provocative and nude photos, which he hung on the wall of his jail cell. Some people tried to send him money to spend at the jail commissary, which he was prohibited from having. The killer will go down in history.

“The gaping void — the gaping wound — that we have with the loss of our granddaughter has been replaced with a new abscess of him living,” said Robert Sullivan, grandfather to 6-year-old victim Veronica Moser-Sullivan, after the sentence was announced.

While covering the trial, I asked a long-time print journalist if he thought the amount of media coverage was healthy for victims or for the general public. He took a moment to mull on it and then told me no, it’s not good but editors demand it because crime stories get more reads than anything else. This was the reporter’s sixth mass murder trial, he said.

The father of one of the deceased victims told me that his wife was prompted to Google her own name during a computer class and the search results displayed images and stories about the man who murdered her son.

The killer and the media benefit from tragedy. Victims don’t, not one iota. Even shooters who take their lives are remembered more than their victims.

Positive gains for people and organizations can be traced back to the very beginning, too. Directly following the massacre, Gov. John Hickenlooper called on the Community First Foundation to raise funds for the victims. Without permission, the non-profit organization used photos of the deceased to raise money that victims later had to fight to have disbursed directly to them. Following some mass shootings, there have been fraudulent fundraisers that employed tragedy to pool money that would never be seen by victims.

Community First’s 2012 public tax forms reported they gave $5,454 to the office of Gov. John Hickenlooper for “Aurora Victim Support.” When I asked the governor’s office how, specifically, this money was used to support victims, I was told they’d get back to me (I haven’t heard back in two weeks).

Community First Foundation 2012 tax form-990

Community First Foundation 2012 tax form-990

Money-raising individuals and organizations benefit from mass killings, and politicians can, also. In the wake of tragedy politicians have the opportunity to say, “Our hearts are with [insert city],” and be remembered for how they handled a horrendous attack on their community or home state.

This is not to say that anyone wishes or hopes for a shooting or that they’re emotionally immune to pain or sympathy toward those suffering the most. Regardless, some people don’t shy away from the chance to gain something for themselves or their organization when manmade catastrophe strikes.

And people fueled by morbid curiosity, those who shamelessly indulge in following daily media coverage that brings attention to the killer — they too benefit by being thrilled and fascinated. But mass murder is not entertainment. Mass murder is not a vehicle for improving a politician’s public image or for increasing a non-profit organization’s general fund. Mass murderers should not be glorified or given more attention than the lives he stole or shattered.

This is the sad reality that I’ve perceived during my time covering the Aurora theater trial. Plenty of positive and beautiful things have been birthed from darkness, too. Nonetheless, I believe too many people do not operate on this basic question before acting: could my words or actions do more harm than good?

For me, this was amplified when media organizations chose to release the killer’s notebook filled with his detailed, murderous plans and philosophical ramblings. That notebook, published in PDF form online, got millions of views. Mass-circulated information can influence people for better or worse, particularly those vulnerable to being followers or non-skeptical believers of things they read or hear. There have been two more theater shootings in the last three weeks and still, some journalists refuse to consider the possibility that their reporting is a part of the cause of these shootings.

No one should seek to benefit from mass killings, even if the benefit is a byproduct of doing something well-intentioned. And if people gave more time, energy and conscious thought to the prevention of mass killings and post-trauma healing, I think our nation would be a safer, healthier place.

We decide our culture. Why shouldn’t we do our best to act according to our highest cultural ideals, especially in response to mass killings and tragedy?

Editor’s note: CU News Corps will honor the victims of this tragedy with every post via this graphic. 


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Explanatory multimedia reporting from CU Boulder journalism students
OPINION: The ‘benefits’ of mass killings