Copycat crimes are certainly not new phenomena. Tylenol bottles laced with poison on supermarket shelves (1982), syringes planted in Pepsi cans (1993), and letters purposely containing deadly anthrax (2001) all occurred in years when a wave of similar crimes suddenly began appearing across the country. “Ever since the Columbine High School killings, the copycat syndrome has been working overtime,” says Adam Cohen (Time, May 31, 1999). Within weeks of those shootings, hundreds of schools were hit with Columbine-style, and 20 percent said their schools had been evacuated because of a bomb threat.
Harvard psychologist William Pollack believes that the epidemic of imitation “starts with kids who are already close to the edge.” Copycats model themselves on crimes (both real and fictional) that get a lot of attention. Sometimes copycats are just looking for pointers on how to commit a crime effectively (mode copying). But copycat criminals are often motivated more by the sheer thrill of making headlines. “It becomes a power trip for the powerless, those who feel they have nothing to lose” says Cohen.
While some say less attention should be given to notorious crimes when they happen, others argue that what’s needed is not less coverage but more information about how these cases turn out. That’s part of the story few copycats have in mind while daydreaming about their “moment in the sun.”
Cohen, Adam. “Criminals as Copycats.” Time (May 31, 1999): 38.
1. What’s your sense about the media attention given to events like the Columbine shootings or the more recent Sandy Hook shootings? Do you think such coverage encourages further violence?
2. What are some of the factors that create a sense of powerlessness among people in the United States today that may make people vulnerable to seeking a sense of power through copycat crime?