Quick, tell me the name of one of the shooters at the Columbine massacre. Now tell me the name of one of their victims. Is it more difficult to do the latter than the former? If so, you are a typical American who did not grow up in or live near
a decade ago. In part, it is because it is easier to remember two people (the murderers) rather than their twelve victims. Furthermore, one does not want to intrude into the grief of the mourning families more than it is necessary, and thus the media have tended to shy away from naming the victims endlessly. But the media have also shown an intense interest in understanding the psychology of the killers, and not altogether for a bad reason: if only we knew what made these murderers tick—what made these disgruntled teens go off the deep end—we might be able to prevent further tragedies. Had these killers not taken their own lives, the media would have also had to cover the ensuing trial, at which time it would have been difficult not to name them repeatedly. One can expect that this will be the case with the most recent mass shooting in Littleton, Colorado . Colorado
It is at times like these that I wish we had the Roman custom of damnatio memoriae, the practice of obliterating from record a bad emperor or an offending person of high standing. In the accompanying picture you see the emperor Septimus Severus and his wife Julia Domna, as well as their two sons, Geta on the left and Caracalla on the right. If the image of Geta looks a little blurry, that is on purpose. After Severus died, Geta and Caracalla shared the imperial power for a couple of years until Caracalla ordered his assassination and took the full imperial power for himself. As a consequence, Caracalla ordered Geta’s image removed and he obliterated any reference to Geta in inscriptions. Of course, if anyone knows their history of late Roman antiquity, Caracalla himself was not all that great and probably deserved damnatio memoriae more than his brother did.
It would be nice if we could treat publicity-seeking heinous criminals in the same way. We already have the nearly universal custom of shielding rape victims and underage victims of crime by not naming them, and that is as it should be. Perhaps, though, the media could do society a favor and ensure that heinous criminals will not get the notoriety they seek. A little damnatio memoriae now and then is a good thing.