By Adib Shamsuddin
‘Monkey see monkey do’ is seemingly a harmless saying, conceding a particular aspect of human nature that people imitate people. With the advent of transnational terrorism, this pidgin saying insinuates something much more acute, something formidable; the phenomenon known as the copy-cat effect or what criminology calls the contagion effect.
The concept is usually traced back to the spate of suicides following the publication of The Sorrows of young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1774. With its convoluted augmentation throughout the centuries, what began as hapless romantics killing themselves has now descended into inspiring some of the most heinous crimes known to mankind. Mass shootings, rampage killing, suicide bombing are some of the examples.
49 year old Timothy Collins was arrested on July 22, 2012 with an arsenal of guns in his car’s boot. He was intending to shoot his former employer after attending the screening of the movie The Dark Knight Rises. What made the discovery more disturbing was that along with his stockpile of weapons he was also carrying clips of the recent Colorado shooting, making him a potential copycat.
Such criminal imitations are most often manifested by individuals of vulnerable age groups, such as adolescents and young adults. Hence we can see why suicides are a relatively convenient solution to the troubled youngsters. A complete narrative helps one visualize the course, a precedent helps effective follow through.
As a matter of policy, mainstream media in developed nations rarely report suicides, particularly that of young adults. Guidelines developed by Center for Disease Control (USA), National Institutes of Mental Health (USA), The Samaritans (UK), Mindframe (Australia) and International Association for Suicide Prevention all equivocally conclude that media should avoid sensationalizing such form of deaths among young people. As a result, methods of suicide or reporting of suicide pacts rarely get the unwanted publicity.
Violence prone individuals and groups imitate violence that they find particularly appealing, be that be through mass media or any other outlet. Perhaps the most citied example in that regard would be that of D.B Cooper, the perpetrator behind the hijacking of a commercial airliner back in the ‘70s. In the wake of heavy media coverage depicting him as an enigma, release of songs and a motion picture devoted to his daredevil heist, Cooper became a cult hero. What followed was a series of similar hijackings with the criminals making likewise extortious demands, demands such as parachutes and ransom originally introduced by D.B Cooper. The case of the Unabomber was another that evinced an effort to get media attention. According to Brigitte L. Nacos, Adjunct Professor of Political Science in Columbia University, the infamous Unabomber retorted to his methods simply because the media had devoted massive coverage to the perpetrator of Oklahoma City bombing, an attack which had just taken place five days earlier.
A quantitative analysis of media reporting of terrorist incidents, subsequent similar terrorist strikes by experts Gabriel Weiman and Conrad Winn actually concluded that what criminologists call the contagion effect or copycat syndrome is indeed real. In their words, ‘television coverage was associated with a shortened lag time to emulation in the case of kidnapping, attacks on installation, hijackings, bombings and assassination.’ Several leading scholar of the field such as Alex P. Schimd, Janny de Graaf, Brian Jenkins and Loren Coleman all concurred with the notion that the media can indeed provide the potential terrorist with all the ingredients that are necessary to engage in violence. RAND, a USA based think tank, analyzed the embassy seizures of the last decades to find them occurring in clusters, clearly suggesting a contagion effect.
Sherry Towers, Research Professor at Arizona State University, holds ‘We found evidence that killings that receive national or international media attention do inspire similar events’. FBI Behavioral Unit Supervisor Andre Simmons solemnly contends ‘the copycat phenomenon is real’.
Responsibility is also not in hindering works of law enforcement agencies, by not giving hourly updates about covert operations for which people are laying down their lives.In the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks, a bench of justices while confirming the death sentence on the prime accused AjmalKasab said the ‘reckless coverage…..gave rise to a situation where, on the one hand, the terrorists were completely hidden from the security forces and they had no means to know their exact positions or even the kind of firearms, and explosives the possessed and, on the other, the positions of the security forces, their weapons, operational movements were being watched by collaborators across the border on TV screens and being communicated to the terrorists.’
Hence, media should be aware to not glorify or serve information to the wrong person. It’s irrelevant that one had a heartbreak, that one of them used to love punk rock or that he used to hang out with celebrities. Psychologist Nigel Barber writes that these acts of terrorism seem to “lie outside rational analysis and more in the realm of psychological disorders.“ Removing elements of crime from the identity of the alleged enables depersonization. And depersonalization is present in a number of contexts – not just copycat slayings. It is used to justify actions in riots, warfare and, of course, rampage killings. Just as warriors on ancient battlefields painted their faces to adopt a new persona for battle, copycat killers mimic their inspiration to reduce their inhibitions, this theory contends.
Similarly, civilians have no purpose in knowing information such as the names of the hostages. That information if leaked might lead to a follow through attack on the survivors. Immaterial facts glosses the violence perpetrated on the victims, normalizes grotesque radical mindsets of attackers. It is only logical to report facts that show the wrong in the actions of perpetrators. Focus should be on the risks brave law enforcers took, the sacrifice of the fallen comrades should be highlighted, and tales of the innocent are the ones that need to be told.
Adib Shamsuddin is a final year Law student at the University of London.