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JOAN VENNOCHI

The slippery slope of not naming gunmen

(Globe Staff; Adobe; Globe file photo)

When Virginia Beach police identified DeWayne Craddock as the suspect who killed 12 people in a municipal building, they said they would never again utter the shooter’s name.

It’s a pledge most of the media will ignore — and should. After all, it runs counter to the basic journalistic mission to answer the five W’s: who, what, when, where, and why? It also runs counter to society’s basic need to try to understand what turned this fellow human into a killer.

The motive behind the so-called No Notoriety pledge— to focus on victims, not assailants — is to keep the media from turning mass murderers into celebrities who inspire copycats. But as James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology, law, and public policy at Northeastern University, points out in an opinion piece for USA Today, it creates a slippery slope. Where do you stop naming names? What about other murderers, he asks, like James “Whitey” Bulger, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and Charles Manson?

According to Fox, carnage is the turn-on, not the identity of any specific assailant. At the same time, however, Fox sees little value, and some harm, in expanding the pool of information beyond a suspect’s name, age, and occupation. That’s what separates academics and criminologists from the rest of us. With each outburst of deadly violence, there’s a human desire to try to figure out what makes another person “snap” and what, if any, red flags along the way were overlooked.

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The mechanics of the crime are easy to understand. Craddock used two handguns, both purchased legally. With at least one, he used a silencer, making it easier for him to continue shooting without tipping off his location to victims. As long as guns are available, that scenario will repeat — unless we figure out the “why.” To that end, there’s a natural instinct to scour the ordinary details of a person’s life for clues.

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Fox writes that what he calls “superfluous material” about a suspect is what crosses the line to dangerous celebrity creation. Following up on that, I asked Fox, via e-mail, if any useful indicators can be mined from such information. His answer: usually not. “Often times, after going through all the minutia (e.g., Las Vegas shooter’s favorite casino games, his pre-shooting meal, his shoe size, photos of his HS tennis team), to that point that we know more about the gunman than our next door neighbor, we still do not have a clear motive,” said Fox. “And even when we do understand a mass killer’s motivation (e.g., the Charleston church shooting), this does not help us identify the next assailant.”

What may look like common characteristics of mass killers, said Fox, fits countless people who will never turn their anger into action.

Consider the details known so far about Craddock. He had a degree in civil engineering and served in the Virginia National Guard. He lived on a quiet cul-de-sac, where he was known for keeping to himself, The Washington Post reported. For 15 years, he worked without incident as an engineer with the Virginia Beach Department of Public Utilities, The New York Times reported. However, one source did tell the Times that “the suspect had no history of behavioral problems until recently, when he had begun acting strangely and getting into physical ‘scuffles’ with other city workers.” The source said “tensions had escalated in the past week, adding that the man had gotten into a violent altercation on city grounds and was told that disciplinary action would be taken.” Craddock submitted his resignation a few hours before embarking on his murderous rampage against colleagues.

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What triggered Craddock? Even if we find the answer, according to Fox, Craddock’s life story won’t made it any easier to predict or prevent the next deadly shooting by a seemingly ordinary person with access to guns.

But deleting Craddock’s name doesn’t delete the crime or the human desire to understand what made him do it.


Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.