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Does naming alleged Boston marathon bombers disrespect survivors?

April 15, 2014|Robin Abcarian
  • Survivor Adrianne Haslet-Davis, performing publicly in Vancouver for the first time after losing part of her leg in the Boston Marathon bombing, walked off "Meet the Press" over a dispute about naming the brothers accused in the bombing.
Survivor Adrianne Haslet-Davis, performing publicly in Vancouver for… (James Duncan Davidson /…)

Was Boston Marathon bombing survivor Adrianne Haslet-Davis right to leave a taping of “Meet the Press” the other day because producers of the news show apparently reneged on a promise not to use the names of the two brothers accused of the carnage?

Haslet-Davis is the professional ballroom dance instructor whose left foot was blown off exactly one year ago today by one of the bombs allegedly planted by the Tsarnaev brothers. She is rightfully receiving a lot of attention now, because it is the anniversary of the blast and because her recovery has been remarkable.

Last weekend, CNN broadcast a powerful special report about her inspiring fight not just to regain her mobility, but also to dance again. In it, she spoke frankly about suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. When she begins screaming in terror watching Boston’s Fourth of July fireworks, you will grasp the powerful, insidious and involuntary nature of PTSD. (You can see this moving moment at the 45-second mark of the CNN promo.)

So, yes, Haslet-Davis had every right to leave “Meet the Press” if she felt she was being put at emotional risk. She had agreed to participate in a round-table discussion about the bombings on two conditions -- that she be referred to as a “survivor,” not a “victim,” and that the alleged bombers’ names not be mentioned.

In an open letter on her website, Haslet-Davis wrote the Sunday news program “disrespected” her and the bombing’s other victims and survivors “by putting the value of a terrorist’s name … over Boston’s integrity, fortitude and my personal well-being.

“I am not one to ask for people to wait on me hand and foot, for people to bend over backwards and leave their own well-being to take care of mine,” she wrote. “But I did specifically ask two things for this interview, one being that his name (and you know to whom I refer to) not be mentioned in my presence. Your decision to back out on that promise and the horrific way you brought that decision to my attention just minutes prior to taping was not only a cowardice move, but a dishonorable one as well. To say I am hurt is an understatement.”

“Meet the Press” host David Gregory apologized via Twitter, and according to reports, NBC President Deborah Turness called her afterward to apologize as well.

But her small act of protest raises a much larger question: Is the media somehow contributing to acts of violence, as some believe, by publishing the names of perpetrators who seek infamy?

The campaign to omit mass murderers’ names seems to have sprung up in 2012, after 12 people were killed and 58 others injured in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., allegedly by a graduate student who also rigged his apartment with explosives.

Alex Teves, 24, was among the victims; he died shielding his girlfriend. Teves had earned a master’s degree in counseling psychology from the University of Denver and wanted to be a physical therapist.

In the aftermath, his parents, Tom and Caren Teves of Phoenix, launched a campaign, the Alex Teves Challenge, urging news outlets to refrain from using the names of mass murderers.

“The goal is to take away a potential piece of a complex puzzle of motivating factors,” they wrote. “Challenge the media to stop using the name and likeness of violent individuals, limiting notoriety and infamy, a potentially motivating factor in mass shootings, violent and copycat crimes.”

Tom Teves was in Cincinnati on business Monday when I reached him to talk about the campaign.

Understandably, his pain and anger over his son’s murder are as fresh and raw as if it happened yesterday.

He strongly believes that naming killers contributes to their acts. And, he said repeatedly, news outlets are motivated only by profits, nothing else, to name perpetrators of violent crime.

“If you keep making these people infamous,” he said, “you should be sorry for the next people who die. Are you willing to take that risk — that children will die because of what you do? That’s the question you really have to ask yourself: not whether I am right or wrong, but whether there is a possibility that I am right. Even if I am 10% right, you may be responsible for people dying.

“Go into your children’s bedroom and say, ‘What if what I just did means that one of these children isn’t in this bed tomorrow?' They are in an urn, like my son is on my wife’s dresser. That’s what you need to do.”

Experts on mass murder don’t have a grasp on how the quest for infamy fits into the picture.

In 2012, Sharon Begley of Reuters asked whether killers are motivated by a desire for notoriety. “Some are, some aren’t,” said Lewis Schlesinger, a professor of forensic psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.  “All we can say is that infamy is a motivation for some.”

I respect Haslet-Davis’ decision to leave “Meet the Press.” And I respect the Teves’ passion, and their grief.

But we cannot alter reality. Murderers have names. The names must be known.

Because when these terrible tragedies strike, the public’s first, and most pressing question never varies: Who did this unspeakable thing?


Twitter: @robinabcarian

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