Saturday, August 8, 2009

Should we read a mass murderer's blog?

After that guy opened fire in a parking lot the other day, killing three people and himself, someone posted his blog to Metafilter with this teaser:

A murderer attempts to explain, justify, and understand his crime (before the fact).
Now, that link to his blog doesn't work anymore. The full content of the site has been preserved at other URLs, but I'm not going to link to them since his blog encourages harassing specific private citizens at their addresses and phone numbers. (If you're really curious, you can look for them in the comments of the Metafilter post.)

Many commenters on Metafilter reacted very negatively to the decision to link to his blog, but most of them weren't objecting to the addresses and phone numbers. Many comments were along these lines:
I say delete this, so his "my voice will speak forever" crap is denied.
That's a reference to a message that the killer, George Sodini, posted at the bottom of his site:
This should not be taken off the web. It is obviously my view and opinion. Reproduce this as you wish, in its entirity. Copy this to usenet/newsgroups where my voice will speak forever!
And no less than the New York Times gave him what he wanted by immortalizing his words in an article with the headline, "Blog Details Shooter’s Frustration":
Mr. Sodini, 48, described his anger and frustration in painstaking detail ... in a chilling online diary, offering an extraordinarily stark portrait of a killer’s motives. ...

In his online journal, ... Mr. Sodini, a programmer-analyst at a local law firm, said that he had not had a girlfriend since 1984 and that he had not had sex since July 1990, when he was 29.

“I actually look good,” Mr. Sodini wrote in an entry dated Dec. 29, 2008. “I dress good, am clean-shaven, bathe, touch of cologne — yet 30 million women rejected me — over an 18- or 25-year period. That is how I see it. Thirty million is my rough guesstimate of how many desirable single women there are.

“A man needs a woman for confidence. He gets a boost on the job, career, with other men, and everywhere else when he knows inside he has someone to spend the night with and who is also a friend.”
Here's what I said to those who said we shouldn't be reading his words:
Isn't it worthwhile to try to understand the thoughts of someone who's going to commit murder? Similarly, I think it's worth reading bin Laden's writings to try to understand the terrorist mindset. The idea that Sodini's website should be ignored sounds a lot like those who balk at the idea of "understanding" terrorists. You can understand what went on in someone's mind without excusing their actions.

The fact that the site implores the public to harass random citizens is way over the line. I wouldn't mind seeing this deleted for that reason. But on the whole, I think his blog is pretty interesting, in the same way I find bin Laden's fatwas and Hitler's Mein Kampf interesting and important reading.
If you had read Mein Kampf when it originally came out, you might have been able to predict that the Holocaust would happen. Hitler describes huge natural disasters as positive things that could wipe out the weak elements of humanity, leaving a few strong people to start a super-race. We can't stop the Holocaust now, of course. But does that mean there's no reason to read Mein Kampf? No, it's still inherently worthwhile to try to understand the mind of someone capable of doing such great evil.

Similarly, some of the Metafilter commenters pointed out that reading Sodini's blog isn't going to help anyone stop this from "happening again." Even assuming that's true (though I don't know how they know that), the site can be worth reading without clearing the threshold of "This could save lives!" I actually find some of Sodini's comments (about how men need women) to be poignant and a little insightful. Of course, this is absolutely no excuse for killing random innocent people.

But some people will say this is missing the point: the problem is that if we pay any attention to the details of what Sodini said or what was going on in his life, we're "glorifying" a killer. Well, no, there's nothing glorious about it. His writings make him sound absolutely pathetic and insignificant. It's hard to imagine copycat murders inspired by the guy who claimed that he opened fire out of frustration that he couldn't find a girlfriend. It's easier to imagine the reverse: that a self-aggrandizing potential mass murderer out there would feel deflated to find out how utterly lacking in glory this guy is.

10 comments:

LemmusLemmus said...

What's your position here? (1) That "we" should read a mass murderer's blog in the same sense that we should (say) care about the environment or (2) that such blogs and similar documents should not be censored but available to the general public? Not the same thing.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Good point. Of course, I'm not saying everyone has an affirmative duty to read it! I can see how my heading for this post was ambiguous -- a better heading would have been, "Should a murderer's blog be accessible to the public?" or "Is it OK to read a murderer's blog?" Your item #2 is closer to what I'm talking about, but I want to be clear that the main concern is private, self-imposed censorship. I'm not worried about government censorship, but about sites like Metafilter deciding whether to delete the link to it -- or even individual readers feeling that it's somehow wrong to read what he wrote. This is a recurring issue: a lot of people were very critical of media outlets for exploring the psyches of the Columbine murderers, the Virginia Tech murderer, etc.

LemmusLemmus said...

O.k., I disagree with that. The sparse evidence that there is suggests that these kinds of people feel hard done by and just for once want to teach everybody a lesson and want people to know that they did. (If I remember correctly, that Korean guy who shot people in an American college mailed a video to the press halfway through in which he explained how society had made him do it.) Hence, the more publicity previous spree killers get, the more attractive spree killings become for potential future offenders. Whether you or I think that such documents glorify the killer is besides the point. (I am assuming you're not currently considering a spree killing.)

If the above reasoning is correct, restricting the access to such documents and using his name as little as possible seems likely to save lives. (For the same argument, see this video, which was also linked to at MetaFilter.*

At the same time I think such materials should of course be available to experts because this might indeed help to avert future killings.

*Yeah, given the argument it makes I also think it's ironic that it shows a killer's face.

Jason (the commenter) said...

LemmusLemmus : If the above reasoning is correct, restricting the access to such documents and using his name as little as possible seems likely to save lives.

I have problems with the above reasoning. It's ridiculous to run your life based on what some crazy person may or may not do. You might as well live in a padded cell yourself.

Spree killers aren't even a big problem. That's why they get news coverage when they do strike. I'm sure more people are killed every year from slipping on the floor or having their names and addresses in the white pages.

Censoring their material might even feed the crazy person's sense of paranoia. It might also make their writings more powerful because the government is trying to hide them.

At the same time I think such materials should of course be available to experts because this might indeed help to avert future killings.

An expert isn't going to be reading the blog of someone I'm working with, I will though. That's why I may want to know what a spree killer's writings sound like.

Maybe I find them amusing.

What I want to know is, what gives you the right to tell me what I may and may not read? I am perfectly able of telling what is and isn't for my own good. I think it is this very attitude, that rights must be taken away from people for their own good that has led to all sorts of dictatorships and crimes.

Perhaps we should ban the writings of LemmusLemmus?

John Althouse Cohen said...

LemmusLemmus, you definitely have a good point about the downside of giving people like the Columbine and Virginia Tech killers what they want.

But if we're going to look at it that way, the problem is deeper: why do the killings themselves get so much media attention? As Jason points out, the massacre-style killings are rare and lead to very few deaths.

I also agree with Jason about the "experts" point. I'm averse to the idea that there's any information in the world that's both (1) of great social importance but (2) concealed from public view, unless there's a really good reason. The main exception that comes to mind is if there's an ongoing need to keep the information classified -- e.g. an ongoing investigation or military operation. But we're talking about cases where the killings have already happened and the killers are dead; there's no concern about compromising an investigation. In that case, there are several problems with concealing the material from anyone who's not an "expert":

1. It's elitist!

2. Experts aren't the only ones who serve the public in dealing with crime. Random citizens are also important -- both prospectively (calling the cops to report something fishy) and retrospectively (jury duty). So there's a real need for the general public to have an understanding of the criminal mind.

3. Aside from any practical use, there's value to simply satisfying people's intellectual curiosity. "What's going on in the mind of someone who commits cold-blooded murderer?" is always going to be a fascinating question. Sodini's blog is one out of countless answers to the question, even though it's imperfect (he might have been misrepresenting his true thoughts, or he might be unrepresentative of murderers on the whole).

LemmusLemmus said...

Jason, John,

a longish reply, much of it in the ugly but handy quote-and-comment format.

"What I want to know is, what gives you the right to tell me what I may and may not read?"

You tell me. I didn't say I have it.

"Perhaps we should ban the writings of LemmusLemmus?"

Would you like to make the case? Otherwise I don't see what purpose this remark serves.

"I think it is this very attitude, that rights must be taken away from people for their own good that has led to all sorts of dictatorships and crimes."

The history of dictatorships is long and varied, but if you'd press me for a one-factor explanation of dictators' motivations, "protecting people from themselves" wouldn't be my first shot. Plus, I'm not talking about protecting people from themselves, I'm talking about protecting people from other people.

"It's ridiculous to run your life based on what some crazy person may or may not do."

How crazy people's actions might be influenced by the availability of media is something politics should consider when making decisions about the availability of such media. And there's no such thing as "no decision".

"why do the killings themselves get so much media attention?"

That's a different question. It seems irrelevant if you want to decide whether or not to ban the writings under consideration. But maybe I'm missing something.

"It's elitist!"

That's an adjective, not an argument.

You make three points that I think should be weighed against the one I made for restricting the access:

1. Reading such stuff can be interesting in its own right.

2. Forbidden fruit: Maybe government bans make this kind of stuff more interesting/glorious and hence may achieve the opposite of what I think they would.

3. Knowing such documents puts nonexperts in a position to detect warning signs, which in turn can contribute to a reduction in killings.*

Do these three outweigh the effect, if any, that I described? I don't think so, but when you analyze this stuff from a utilitarian perspective, as I'm trying to do, this is simply an empirical question, and of course I may be wrong.

*As for juries, they could be given the expert treatment and get a crash course before the trial starts. Even better: Have no juries at all.

Jason (the commenter) said...

LemmusLemmus : ..but when you analyze this stuff from a utilitarian perspective...

You completely discredit yourself when you use such a method. All Utilitarians are horribly selfish people as surely as every person who's ever said "you can trust me" is a liar. In this very conversation you have tried to claim your utility as that of society and therefore greater than the utility of John and myself. And you've used that excuse to propose stripping us of our rights.

It doesn't matter how many counter-arguments we come up with because you'll never say we've provided enough evidence to overcome society's (your) concerns.

I'm not saying our arguments are without flaws, but your argument contains a flaw so large as to obscure anything else you might say.

John Althouse Cohen said...

You completely discredit yourself when you use such a method. All Utilitarians are horribly selfish people...

I could just as easily argue: "You completely discredit yourself when you reject utilitarianism. Everyone who dismisses utilitarian considerations is horribly selfish."

LemmusLemmus said...

"All Utilitarians are horribly selfish people"

A-ha!

Jason (the commenter) said...

JAC : I could just as easily argue: "You completely discredit yourself when you reject utilitarianism. Everyone who dismisses utilitarian considerations is horribly selfish."

I'll agree with the selfish part, but not the horrible part. That comes from trying to pretend you aren't being selfish and trying to get other people to ignore their personal feelings for "the greater good."