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COMMENTARY

Jeff Simon: Why I think we shouldn't permit mass murderers anonymity

Jeff Simon

Don't print his name. That was the pleading of some people. Don't show his picture either, wrote others. And whatever journalists do, they shouldn't allow that video of his slaughter to be streamed. Or print the contents of his 74-page "manifesto."

So wrote an instant storm of people on social media immediately after the New Zealand massacre in which a white supremacist opened fire on two mosques and ended up with a fatality total (thus far) of 50.

I understand, believe me. It's reflex horror and fear and disgust. Who isn't full of loathing and despair every time some new walking arsenal bulls into a building and starts spraying bullets at innocent civilians? To our unending horror, it's all become sickeningly familiar.

And why, we might think, should we grant the murderer what he and his brothers (always men) so self-evidently want -- instant infamy and a permanent place in the history of the damned whose casualties the rest of us can't seem to end? I get all that.

But that's not how journalism works. In the case of Brenton Harrison Tarrant, the 28-year-old Australian body builder and fitness coach who was arrested for the crime, I'm glad of that.

I'm no criminologist, that's for certain. I'm merely an analyst of news of many decades, and a critic and couch potato with an accelerating weakness for true crime on TV. It seems to me, the first wave of information about Tarrant doesn't fall easily into the patterns we've become so sick of already.

He was, for one thing, not just a provincial and paranoid political fantasist, he's a well-traveled tourist who'd been to Bosnia, Montenegro, Croatia, Serbia, Turkey, North Korea and Pakistan. His "manifesto" claimed his virulent and vile Islamophobia began in France.

In his "manifesto," he admits a prevalent concern with how his slaughter would be received in the world. "I chose firearms for the effect it would have on social discourses, the extra media coverage they would provide and the effect it would have on the politics of the United States and thereby the situation of the world."

Among his other claims were an affection for Donald Trump's ideas, but not his political savvy. He claims to be an "introvert" who will be perfectly happy eventually to be forgotten in the annals of homemade terrorism.

I understand the internet despair, but journalism is about information. I agree streaming video of his massacre should henceforth be dead to the world. The idea of conflating a mass snuff film with video games is vile to the extreme -- especially if it is possible to keep it off most of the web.

But though I'm no more than a veteran amateur in trying to figure this guy out, I want a platoon of real professionals to have access to his "manifesto" and biography and, eventually, his self so we can be told about it when some new kind of monster emerges from the slime of extremist politics.

This guy just doesn't seem like the archetype we might be able to spot twitching in line at the post office. He seems to have a sociopath's ability to pass himself as what he isn't.

It isn't journalism's job to enforce anonymity for these prowling maniacs we're all so sick of. Journalism is about the information society needs to function -- especially something as self-evidently revealing as a terrorist's manifesto.

I'm not saying I want to read it, but think it ought to be public so the right people can, wherever they might happen to be.

The desire to enforce silence seemed to be everywhere following the horrors in New Zealand. A couple of NYU students confronted Chelsea Clinton and, with staggeringly simplistic self-righteousness, chastised her for previously coming out critically against the recent remarks of Detroit's Rep. Ilhan Omar.

The student scolded Clinton fatuously, as if her critical scrutiny of a Muslim congresswoman's clumsy and careless joking about Zionism ("it's all about the Benjamins") were part of what was responsible for the calamity in New Zealand. To believe Chelsea Clinton has anything in common with a homicidal Islamophobe, you've got to be dealing with the world on such a reflex polemical level that you might not recognize actual politically neutral information when you see it.

Yes, I know there will be long lines of people willing to queue up to say there is no such thing as "politically neutral information."

That's precisely why it needs to exist freely after such hideousness in the world, so that we are all free to assay it for ourselves.

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