On the 20th anniversary of the Port Arthur massacre, a commemoration was held at the site. It was attended by many of the event’s major actors, though, happily, not by its author, a deranged and pathetic individual who remained where he should, locked away for the term of his very unnatural life. Not surprisingly, the various media supplied coverage and reminiscences. As a matter of interest, I sampled 30 media reports. These were of variable quality – some very good, others less so. One article reported the massacre as having taken place at Port Arthur in Tanzania. Of the 30 reports I viewed, only eight refrained from mentioning the killer’s name. The West Australian on the date of the anniversary wrote of Walter Mikac, a man who lost his wife and two young daughters in the atrocity. The West Australian mentions the Alannah & Madeline Foundation, named in honour of Mr Mikac’s little girls, and says “Mr Mikac…and the foundation avoid using the name of the man who killed 35 people and injured 23 at Port Arthur. They feel he doesn’t deserve a place in history alongside the victims.” Except that the West Australian didn’t say that exactly. Instead of using the anonymous pronoun, they named the killer, so it would seem they disagree with Mr Mikac who, it must be said, for his dignity, grace, humility and forbearance in the most horrific of circumstances, most certainly does deserve a place in history.
In the aftermath of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, associates of his killer were tried and found guilty of complicity in the act. “We want to know their names no more,” a Northern newspaper wrote, after their trussed and hooded bodies had fallen through the trapdoors on their communal gibbet. It seems this exhortation was respected, for I would guess that while many of us could name Lincoln’s killer, not one in a hundred, not one in a thousand, could name those co-conspirators who ended on the gallows that day in July 1865.
It has been argued that the desire for recognition is a powerful motivating force: babies cry for it, grown men die for it. Some will even kill for it. Killing is a cheap and easy way for a nonentity to write her (or more probably, his) name beside that of a great person. Lincoln fell victim to an actor, a man who had sought recognition on lesser stages, before appearing at Ford’s Theatre to bring the curtain down on America’s greatest president.
You don’t need to be a psychologist to know that I’m no psychologist, but it seems obvious to me that anyone who goes on a rampage of mass slaughter embraces the notion that their chances of escape are minimal and their opportunities for fame unlimited. This is not to say that the desire for fame is always the sole or even the major motivation, but it surely must be a factor. Why do we collude by giving these deranged individuals the oxygen of publicity?
I don’t need or want to know the name of the Port Arthur killer or the Hoddle Street killer or the sad loser responsible for the atrocity in Queen Street. But I’m stuck with them, like the words of a song I hate, lodged in my head, and they won’t go away.
It may not always be possible to suppress the name of a perpetrator and I don’t advocate official censorship, but surely some judicious self-censorship by those reporting these atrocities would be in the interests of us all. This is not a new idea and I don’t claim authorship. I have seen the testimony of reporters who deliberately practise this restraint and I applaud them – it’s a pity they’re in the minority.