A quarter of a century ago this Wednesday, a man shot Zoe Hall in Port Arthur, Tasmania. She’d been assigned as my mentor at the law firm where we worked. Zoe was a talented lawyer and a generous soul. She would be 53 today, and I imagine her with a loving family and admiring colleagues.
The same man murdered six-year-old Alannah and three-year-old Madeline Mikac, along with their mother Nanette. Their father, Walter, established the Alannah and Madeleine Foundation, which works to keep children safe from violence.
Yet when Australia remembers the event, we are less likely to hear the names of Zoe, Alannah, Madeline and the other 32 victims than we are to hear about the murderer. Media outlets will be tempted to show his name, to tell his backstory, to print photographs of a man who has never shown remorse for his crimes.
It doesn’t have to be this way. In ancient cultures, the greatest punishment was known as damnatio memoriae – condemnation of memory. Society deliberately blotted them out of the record. Their name was taboo. Their stories were erased.
In the fourth century BC, the punishment was meted out by the peoples of Ephesus to an arsonist who set fire to the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of antiquity. After Stalin’s death, it was partially implemented, as statues of the murderous dictator were torn down. After the Christchurch massacre, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said of the killer: “You will never hear me mention his name.”
Damnatio memoriae isn’t merely about justice – it’s also about incentives. Mass murderers often seek notoriety for their crimes. The perpetrator who killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida said in a video that he wanted to become a school shooter for the notoriety: “When you see me on the news you’ll know who I am.” The Christchurch murderer livestreamed his atrocities.
Publicity that centres on the killers risks inspiring copycat shootings. The murderers who carried out the Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook shootings were motivated by the Columbine killers. Researchers have shown that in the fortnight after a mass shooting in the US, the odds of another such shooting increase. Mass murder is contagious. Irresponsible reporting plays a role.
Nine years ago, Tom and Caren Teves established No Notoriety, following the killing of their son Alex in the Aurora theatre shooting. The movement calls on media outlets to deny killers the infamy they seek. Its message is simple: No Name. No Photo. No Notoriety.
This Wednesday, it is appropriate that Australia mark the 25th anniversary of our worst mass shooting. But let’s blot out the perpetrator from those reports. Instead, let’s tell the stories of the beautiful lives that were cut short. Let’s talk about the courage of the spouses who threw themselves in front of the gunman so their partners could survive. Let’s appreciate the grace of families who bore the burden of unimaginable sorrow.
And let us never speak his name.
This opinion piece was first published in The Age on Monday, 26 April 2021
Authorised by Pau Erikson, ALP, Canberra