Marju Himma: Three points on tragic incidents

Marju Himma.
Marju Himma. Source: Kairit Leibold /ERR

The Lihula shooting is yet another traumatic experience Estonians have not gone through in such a form before. However, it includes enough similarities with other tragic incidents to provide food for a few lessons, journalism scholar Marju Himma finds in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

Many Estonians who checked the news on Sunday morning were treated to a shock when they learned a man had shot at a family, five people altogether, killing two in Lihula. Even social and seemingly remote traumatic experiences are always personal as they awake in us evolutionary fright reflexes and make us ask ourselves how close we came to the situation.

This was also reflected in social media regarding the Saturday incident as people felt the need to write about how close to the site they or members of their family had been.

Next to it, a discussion concerning the killer's motives appeared. Searching for the reason and motivation behind unexpected acts of murder is also evolutionary. For example, scientists have determined that while birds gather around a fallen companion to mourn, the main goal of such gatherings is to try and determine why the bird died so similar situations could be avoided in the future.

Estonia has seen a series of traumatic experiences in recent years. Let us recall the Snelli Park killer, Viljandi school shooter, Telliskivi shooting, Saaremaa death driver or the grocery store robbery in Haanja. These unexpected traumatic experiences inevitably raise the question of whether something could have been done differently. All of them raise three points that have become a thought pattern by now.

Point 1: Let us change the rules

Debates regarding grounds for weapons permits or why it took the police so long to arrive in Lihula surfaced already on Sunday.

Of course, if a person has committed firearms or munitions violations, their access to weapons should be restricted for good. Because guns don't kill people, people do, and a person who has knowingly used a weapon for something other than what it is meant for could do it again. Besides, a weapons permit is not a human right, it is a privilege.

The Lihula shooter had fired a gun at an apartment building 12 years ago. And while he was punished and served his sentence, it only tells us that while seemingly regretting one's actions could be enough to make amends, it does nothing to justify return of privileges in a situation where the person's behavior could be unpredictable.

The tragic events in Lihula could not have been avoided by the police arriving at the scene sooner. That said, and as pointed out by Toomas Sildam, a campaign of reorganization in terms of the number of rural area patrols and weapons permits conditions could be in order.

Point 2: The power of loved ones

Alas, even if we had a lot more police, the authorities constantly keeping a close eye on everyone who has made mistakes and paid for them is unthinkable. That is why the most effective way to prevent events such as what happened in Lihula would be to rely on civil responsibility, in other words, loved ones paying attention and seeking help.

To some extent, it could be every person's responsibility to monitor the behavior of their spouse, friend or neighbor, while the police need to be notified if someone is about to get behind the wheel while drunk or under the influence of drugs. Just as the authorities need to be notified of domestic violence, child abuse or acts of vandalism.

There is a dark side to this. Reporting a loved one to the police can lead to fights and end friendships. We cannot know everything about the people we care about, their motivation or thoughts at any given time. That is why loved ones of someone who commits a crime should never be criticized for inaction or failure to call the police.

However, relatives taking note and action is the first level when it comes to preventing tragedies. And it can be promoted through encouraging people.

Point 3: Mediation and explanation

Media coverage of the aforementioned incidents was quite similar for all publications. We quickly learned who had shot whom. Next came the search for potential motivation through interviewing acquaintances, colleagues, neighbors etc.

It is a journalist's job to collect information, analyze and then publish it. However, the practice of releasing information in tiny bites in this case meant leaving the impression that the children's mother had been shot. Of course, there is a lot of new information in such crisis situations, however, the task of the journalist and the editorial board is to synthesize and give meaning to information, not just forward every piece of it raw.

It was baffling to see articles promising photos and videos from the scene in headlines. The photos and videos that were published held neither new information nor news. The time spent taking them could have been put to better use providing an analysis and a complete overview of the events that unfolded.

Society also cares a great deal about the victims because we identify with them – some with the children's mother, others with the grandmother or the courageous biker. And we base our behavior on their example as we feel we could have been in their shoes.

In the case of mass shootings, social scientists and behavioralists have always said that because the shooters are attention seekers, painting their journalistic pictures should be avoided. It inspires others with similar impulses and fulfills the killer's need for attention.

There is a measure of similarity with tragic events in Estonia. Perhaps they have not been attention seekers, but they offer plenty of inspiration for those looking for role models in brutality.

Can anything be done at all?

One thing is for sure, irrespective of the public order or how much personal freedom it allows, every society condemns coldblooded, unpremeditated and unmotivated killing. Regarding the Lihula incident, we do not know whether there really was no motive or why the shooter did what he did.

We try to give such situations meaning as rational people who adhere to the norms of moral and ethics. However, they do not apply to people whose behavior is unpredictable.

That is why we can only learn from past traumatic experiences, try to prevent them if possible but must also learn to live with the damage they cause when they happen.

Marju Himma is a journalism studies research fellow at the University of Tartu and a postdoctoral researcher at Karlstad University.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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