Joel Best writes: The killings of 20 first-grade students and six adult staff members at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012, obviously constitutes a terrible, newsworthy event. But the news coverage did more than report the details of what happened at Newtown. It also sought to classify this incident as an instance of a larger problem. The initial news reports described what had happened as “the second deadliest school shooting,” “another mass shooting,” and a “mass killing” (all in stories in the next day’s New York Times) and as “the second deadliest shooting event in U.S. history” (The Washington Post). The Post’s website ranked the 12 “Deadliest U.S. shootings” (the earliest case on their list occurred in 1949), while the Mother Joneswebsite added Newtown to its page “A Guide to Mass Shootings in America” (which included only cases from 1982 to 2012).
It may seem self-evident that the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary ought to be classified as a shooting event, or as a school shooting or a mass shooting. Of course we classify events into categories that make sense to us, and it is easy to take familiar categories for granted. We learn of terrible crimes and we are accustomed to commentators talking about incidents as instances. But the ways we make sense of the world—the terms we use to describe that world—are created by people, and they are continually evolving, so that specific categories come into and fall out of favor. In fact, in recent decades, Americans have understood events like the Newtown killings in a variety of ways.
In 1966, Charles Whitman killed 14 people and wounded 32 others by shooting from a 28th floor observation deck on the University of Texas campus in Austin. (In addition, before coming to the campus, he killed his wife and mother.) Whitman had been an Eagle Scout and a Marine; commentators at the time puzzled that an apparently respectable young man had committed such a terrible crime. The Whitman shootings occurred less than three weeks after Richard Speck had murdered eight student nurses by stabbing or strangling them. Reporters linked the two cases, and also mentioned other killers, such as Charles Starkweather and the “Son of Sam,” in articles about mass slayings, mass killings, or multiple killings.
In the 1960s and 1970s, then, it was understood that the key feature of these cases was a high body count. These early discussions of mass murder lumped together cases that varied along what would come to be seen as important dimensions:
Time: Did the killings occur more or less simultaneously, or did they extend over several days, months, or years?
Place: Did the killings occur in a single location, or in a variety of places?
Method: How were the victims killed?
By the early 1980s, the Federal Bureau of Investigation promoted the distinction between mass murder and serial murder. The Bureau had a new databank—the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, or VICAP—that could help law enforcement identify similar crimes that had occurred in other jurisdictions. But in the aftermath of revelations about the FBI’s surveillance of the civil rights movement, an effort to expand the bureau’s domestic data collection invited suspicion and resistance. The FBI used the serial murderer menace—and particularly the idea that serial killers might be nomadic, able to kill in different jurisdictions without the authorities ever recognizing that crimes in different places might be linked—to justify the VICAP program. That set the stage for Clarice Starling and all the other heroic FBI agents who began pitting their wits against serial murderers in crime fiction and movies. “Son of Sam” would no longer be classified with Charles Whitman.