Why We Need to Understand Adam Lanza

Depriving us of a villain deprives us of even the little understanding we can hope to obtain of such dark events.

Here are a few things that we know about Adam Lanza that we didn’t in the first, furious hours after last week’s Newtown massacre:

We know his mother collected guns, and took him to shooting ranges with her. We know he used her guns to kill her, and then commit a massacre at an elementary school. We know that he had a history of odd behavior—that his parents had told others Lanza had Asperger’s syndrome—and we also now have reason to believe that Lanza’s mother was taking steps toward having him committed to a mental facility when he committed his awful crimes.

These are more than interesting details: They’re hard facts that will shape America’s eventual response to the Newtown killings. Do we need tougher gun laws? Would they have made a difference? How about a stronger system in support of mental health care. Every solution offered will be weighed against the facts of Adam Lanza’s story, weighed against one simple question: “Would this have stopped the killing spree?”

That’s a conversation that will take place beyond the corridors of subcommittee hearings and lobbyist calls: It’s already taking place—as it should in a democracy—on Twitter, Facebook, and every other virtual and not-so-virtual gathering place people meet to discuss and debate.

Which is why my Philly Post colleague Larry Mendte is wrong to propose that news organizations make the decision, now, never to publicly name any future mass murderer.

“A psychological profile is starting to form as data is collected from the ghosts of shooting sprees past,” he wrote on Tuesday. “They are all highly intelligent, young white men who feel society hasn’t recognized their talents. The shootings are their way of finally getting noticed. So let’s take away that incentive.”

The problem? Dropping the veil over the murderer and his motives deprives the broader community the opportunity to shape a meaningful response. And not every mass killer is a young white man with delusions of grandeur—there’s no evidence in the public realm, for example, that Adam Lanza desired notoriety, no package of PR materials delivered to a TV network, such as happened in the Virginia Tech massacre.

Depriving us a name deprives us of a villain. Depriving us of a villain, in turn, deprives us of even the little understanding we can hope to obtain of such dark events. And that’s not the job of journalism.

Our job is to explain.

We don’t always do it well. And sometimes we’re overzealous, interviewing traumatized children mere moments after they’ve walked past the fallen bodies of their classmates. We’re guilty of chasing pageviews, single-copy sales, TV ratings, and “buzz,” and we’re guilty of doing all these things so egregiously sometimes that Aaron Sorkin can make a small fortune off his own self-righteousness.

But our job is to explain. And to explain, we must obtain and deliver the facts.

Adam Lanza is not a generic, anonymous killer. The more we understand him, the more we name him and the choices he made, the better prepared we will be to decide what happens next. It’s unfortunate that we know Adam Lanza’s name, but it is also important that we do. That’s the start of understanding. That’s where reporting should begin, not end.