Should I refer to the person who killed 10 people and injured 16 more in a 2018 van attack in Toronto by his given name? Or should I follow the recommendation of the judge in the case, Justice Anne Molloy, and just call him John Doe?
The journalist in me, who argues for transparency and openness at all times, wants to call him by his real name. But the other me, who seeks to prevent further violence – particularly violence against women – wants to deprive him of notoriety. Notoriety is the oxygen that fuels mass killers. They write about it in their manifestos. They brag about being inspired by one another.
Let’s just call him the killer. His name is a matter of public record and available elsewhere in our coverage. Justice Molloy handed down her judgment Wednesday, in which she rejected the defence’s argument that the killer was not criminally responsible because his autism spectrum disorder rendered him incapable of understanding that his actions were morally wrong. (People with autism, it should be noted, are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of crime.)
Justice Molloy found him guilty of 10 counts of first-degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder. In rendering her judgment live on YouTube, she made an unusual decision. She would not name him. “One of the issues with which I have struggled is that this accused committed a horrific crime, one of the most devastating tragedies this city has ever endured, for the purpose of achieving fame.” She added that the defendant told forensic psychiatrists that the attention the attack received made him “happy.”
As a result, Justice Molloy said she was going to refer to the defendant as John Doe. She acknowledged that his name was already in the public record, but added that perhaps it would not be published in the future. “It is merely a wish,” she said, “perhaps a naive one.”
It’s certainly going to be a hotly contested one. This country already has a huge problem with transparency when it comes to the police and other public institutions. I’ve complained about it a lot. And I believe that people charged with crimes should be named, except in the case where a publication ban exists. But in this case, I agree with Justice Molloy. Mass killers do not deserve the notoriety they seek, and their example should not be allowed to inflame and encourage others.
The van killer stated that he was inspired by previous misogynist killers. (I’m not going to name them, either.) He said, in his initial interviews with police after the attack, that he considered himself part of the incel (involuntary celibate) community, a misogynistic online subculture. “I was thinking that I would inspire future masses to join me in my uprising,” he said. “I was fairly confident that others would be inspired to repeat the same actions as me just basically to overthrow society.”
If you ever visit those online communities, you’ll see that some of them fester with hate. The name of the man who killed 14 women at the École Polytechnique in 1989 is celebrated. Most of that hate stays safely online; some of it does not. And when it does not, the activities of one mass killer are cited by the ones that follow, as was the case with Toronto’s van attacker. The killers write manifestos, laying out their twisted beliefs, which they hope will be cited long into the future, ensuring their infamy.
The idea of trying to stifle that infamy is not new. As academics Adam Lankford of the University of Alabama and Eric Madfis of the University of Washington wrote in 2017, “prior research has shown that many mass shooters have explicitly admitted they want fame and have directly reached out to media organizations to get it. These fame-seeking offenders are particularly dangerous because they kill and wound significantly more victims than other active shooters, they often compete for attention by attempting to maximize victim fatalities, and they can inspire contagion and copycat effects. If the media changes how they cover mass shooters, they may be able to deny many offenders the attention they seek and deter some future perpetrators from attacking.”
There has been some movement toward accepting this way of thinking. For example, after a gunman killed 12 people and wounded four others in Virginia Beach, the police named him once and then did not publicly do so again. In New Zealand, they don’t use the name of the murderer who killed 50 people at two mosques in 2019. “We in New Zealand will give him nothing,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said. “Not even his name.”
When CNN’s Anderson Cooper said he was no longer going to name mass killers on air, the decision was met with mockery. Some news outlets are resistant to this new way of thinking, but I have a shocking revelation for you: News outlets are generally conservative in their approach to their craft and are often resistant to nuance, complexity and change. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen.
It’s understandable that newspapers and broadcasters want to provide as much information as possible to their audiences. We’re in the business of transparency and information-sharing. But mass killings present a specific dilemma and require specific solutions. Transparency can be provided by naming the killer initially and exploring the crime in detail, but then refraining from glorifying him with endless repetition of his name and face. Nothing is lost that way, and lives might be saved.
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