Saturday, April 21, 2007

Copycats In Dangerous Times

For those that have my book, The Copycat Effect, you will note that it is dedicated to my maternal grandmother, Nellie Gray, who was killed in a murder-suicide on Valentine's Day 1940. Yesterday ended with another murder-suicide, on the anniversary of Columbine. It was another murder-suicide in a week that began with the VA Tech murders-suicide. What did the cable news and other media outlets do with it? They let us know for hours and hours, with helicopters overhead showing a building, a SWAT vehicle in mud, and "danger" that there was a police standoff at NASA in Clear Lake near Houston, Texas. Another suicidal person in Clear Lake had taken the world media stage, I said to myself. (In my book, I write of Clear Lake, Texas, as a primary suicide cluster of the 1980s.)

Commentators filled air-time with speculations yesterday about this Clear Lake event being horrible to watch, as it unfolded in the wake of VA Tech. But they kept it on television until it ended with the discovery of the suicide of the man and that he had killed a male hostage three hours earlier. And that he had held a woman alive in the meantime.

Apparently the media remain unconscious to what they are doing. Let's see, the VA Tech tragedy and the NASA standout/murder-suicide are news events being squeezed in between the Anne Nicole Smith and Imus "news" and the Baldwin cellphone rants to his daughter. News as entertainment. But death news tends to be copycatted in many forms. College campuses are not the only sites we have to worry about.

Copycat situations have occurred on school and universities - in almost 30 states since Monday. But as I wrote and consulted about long ago, the school shootings set off other "rampage killers" too. Look and be aware beyond the schools.

I would not be surprised to see a "going postal" situation next week or another school shooting Monday or Tuesday, and then more throughout the whole next month. Right now the repeating action with be diffused and diverse - but the real events will be intense. The bar has been set higher by the media hype, and the results may be more brutal. Those bombs that did not go off at Columbine will be handled by youth who understand technology better. We are in dangerous times.

Here's what I wrote about the events triggered right after a large event such as VA Tech, in my book The Copycat Effect:

p. 135
The copycat effect is a highly volatile phenomenon, spreading much like a match fire set to gasoline dripping across a service station lot. Individual violent acts portrayed in the media tend to spawn further events in the days and weeks that follow, though the subsequent events may be murder-suicides, mass murders, or mass suicides regardless of the precipitating event. Copycat murders and murder-suicides are real.

pp. 138-139
Publicity about a celebrity murder and murder-suicide serves as the spark to send a vulnerable, questioning, suicidal person in one of many directions. How the individual copes with the stresses leading to suicide, of course, varies from individual to individual, but by adding a model of behavior to the mix, via the media, pushes some people in a specific behavioral direction....[California sociologist] David Phillips has found an increase in both suicides and murder-suicides following other well-publicized suicides and murder-suicides, including in unrecognized aircraft accidents. Similarly, sociologist Steve Stack’s 1989 study, the first ever on the effect of publicized mass murders and murder-suicides, showed the interplay between the media, murder, suicide, and murder-suicides. Stack explored their impact on lethal aggression by focussing on the stories of mass murder-suicides and mass murders that aired on two or three of the network news channels (ABC, CBS & NBC) from 1968-1980. Stack found that mass murder/suicides are significantly associated with increases in the suicide rate. He also noted that one special type of mass murder, publicized gangland mass murders, were associated with increases in suicide.

p. 163
It became clear by the late 1990s that reports of workplace violence were not always just followed by other copycats of workplace incidents a day or a week later, but sometimes by other forms of mass and rampage violence as well. For example in the first week of November 1999, two workplace shootings on a Tuesday and a Wednesday shook the United States, which was already reeling from a long string of office and school killings for the year. In Seattle and Honolulu, the families of nine victims grieved as observers debated how to keep violence out of public settings traditionally considered safe. In Honolulu, seven people were shot to death when [a] Xerox technician...walked into a second-floor meeting room of the Xerox's offices and opened fire. He shot all the victims at close range with a 9mm handgun. In Seattle, the next day a gunman shot and killed two men and wounded two others in a shipyard office. Wearing a dark trench coat over camouflage clothing, the gunman had walked into the Northlake Shipyard building and proceeded down a long hallway and into a back office before wordlessly opening fire and shooting all four men in the room with a 9mm semi-automatic handgun. Two 9 mm guns, two Pacific Rim cities, two days of killings. Ten days later, another school shooting occurred in New Mexico.

p. 164
One type of copycat event was reinforcing another...

When such clustering occurs, with its mix of violence types, the copycatting is spreading from one type of incident to another....The violence is everywhere and the media is gobbling it up, unconsciously spreading it in the process.

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