Heeding the wishes of victims of the Colorado shooting and their families, some members of the media (including the Prospect's Steve Erickson) have refrained from using alleged shooter James Holmes's name. On Monday, CNN’s Anderson Cooper tweeted: “I have no intention of saying AuroraShooting suspect's name tonight. Don't want to give him more attention than needed.” True to his word, Cooper referred to Holmes as “the suspect” and “the alleged shooter” throughout the broadcast. Fox News went a step further, blacking out Holmes’s name in documents it displayed on the air. Politicians—including President Obama—have also joined the cause. Colorado governor John Hickenlooper has taken to calling him “suspect A.”
The idea is not only to deny Holmes the notoriety he presumably seeks, but to focus on the victims. It’s a well-intentioned gesture, perhaps, but it’s futile—and wrong-headed to boot. Making a show of not uttering the words “James Holmes” is just another example of the way that, faced with tragedy, we prefer sentimental gestures to meaningful, if difficult, discussions. After September 11, as people like Bill Maher learned the hard way, it became heresy to talk about what might have motivated the hijackers—or to call them anything but “fanatics” or “cowards.” Likewise, it was uncouth to question what might have spurred Gabrielle Giffords's shooter to murder. This time around, we’ve made a word game out of avoiding critical inquiry. While we piously refuse to talk about you-know-who, somewhere in America another 30 people’s lives are claimed by guns—the daily average—and an angry loner fantasizes about revenge and stockpiles his arsenal.
I fear it may be impossible for the public to talk about the attack in Colorado in a way that wouldn't feel like a violation to someone who has just lost a child, a sister, or a best friend. This is always the problem when a private tragedy becomes a public one: Victims and their families no longer own their story. But if the broader public refuses to talk about the shooter—or, as some have suggested, merely label him a coward—this precludes discussing what might have motivated him, what may have stopped him, and what actions legislators can take—if any—to prevent a similar tragedy.
I'm not talking about whether or not it's okay to "politicize" a tragedy; as others have pointed out, it's impossible for a story thrust into the national discourse not to be politicized. The moment someone starts to "grieve" whose only connection to those theatergoers in Aurora is their nationality, we're already in the realm of politics. The real question is how we politicize it: Whether we treat this tragedy as a trite morality tale about Americans' boundless compassion and ability to overcome the fear such an event inspires, or whether we move past promises to "never forget" and change our culture and laws to make similar acts of violence as rare as they are in most other industrialized nations.
James Holmes was so determined to cause harm to others that stricter gun laws wouldn't have stopped him. But it's also clear that the death count would not have been so high had he not owned a semi-automatic weapon. The reason there were not more casualties is that Holmes' semi-automatic jammed, leaving him with a far less deadly weapon to continue his rampage.
Is allowing citizens to own semi-automatic weapons worth the increased capacity for harm? It’s a debate we need to have—fiercely and openly. Instead of hashing this out, though, it is easier for those on opposing sides of the issue to agree that Holmes was a bad guy and that we should feel sorry for his victims and somehow “honor” them with our sorrow. But that's about as useful as agreeing the sky is blue. In effect, what it does is maintain the status quo, which makes it unsurprising that among those saying we should stick to grieving are the NRA and its supporters.
The truth is that none of us is likely to remember the names of the victims of the Colorado shootings in ten years—in the same way few people remember the names of the Oklahoma City bombing's victims. But we can choose to make it more difficult for murderous minds to kill. Or at least we can talk about it. Whatever we do, it will matter very little to the victims of the next shooting whether or not we used James Holmes's name.