WASHINGTON (AP) — When FBI Director James Comey discussed on national television the massacre at an Orlando nightclub, he made an off-the-cuff policy decision not to speak the gunman’s name.
“You will notice that I am not using the killer’s name, and I will try not to do that,” Comey said during the live news conference.
By then, the name Comey was refusing to say had already been known for nearly 24 hours: Omar Mateen. Forty-nine people were killed in the attack, the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
Comey’s pronouncement reflects a change in how federal officials discuss terrorism cases, and it opened the door to questions about whether the intense focus on extremists since 9/11 has unintentionally glorified them.
It was also the latest turn in a renewed debate about the way politicians talk about this issue. The same day, Republican Donald Trump urged President Barack Obama to resign for refusing to use the words “radical Islam” in his response to the Florida attack. Trump’s Democratic rival Hillary Clinton inched closer, using the term “radical Islamism,” but she stressed action over words. Obama dismissed such criticism as “yapping” and said focusing on the gunman’s Muslim faith, not his self-described allegiance to an extremist group, “suggests entire religious communities are complicit in violence.”
The FBI director said his intention was to avoid contributing to the gunman’s infamy.
“Part of what motivates sick people to do this kind of thing is some twisted notion of fame or glory, and I don’t want to be part of that for the sake of the victims and their families,” Comey said, “and so that other twisted minds don’t think that this is a path to fame and recognition.”
Some local police officials have already started refusing to publicly mention the names of mass shooters, but none with Comey’s reach or influence. Other officials quickly followed Comey’s lead, with Trump vowing never to use Mateen’s name, and Obama never mentioning it. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said it was an intentional effort to avoid elevating the gunman and focus instead on victims, who have long pushed reporters and officials to stop referring to mass killers by name.
The FBI said there has been no formal policy change, but Comey’s move was a calculated decision that reflects a growing concern among law enforcement that too much publicity for lone-wolf attackers will inspire more violence.
There’s little research to suggest that withholding names thwarts copycats. Marc Sageman, a psychologist and a longtime government consultant, said Comey’s move seemed more political than a strategy aimed at preventing violence.
The FBI later went as far as to redact Mateen’s name and that of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State leader to whom he pledged allegiance, from transcripts of 911 calls, drawing fire from Republicans who accused the Obama administration of trying to downplay the shooting’s connection to radical extremism. The Justice Department eventually reversed course, but officials said the omissions had been intended to avoid giving extremists a “publicity platform for hateful propaganda.”
“I think there’s a view that we don’t want to glorify people who are so clearly seeking attention because we don’t want to let others who may be thinking about this think, ‘Oh, gee, even if I’m killed in a hail of bullets, my name will live forever on the lips of the FBI director or attorney general,’ ” Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in an interview with The Associated Press. Lynch acknowledged she still sometimes uses Mateen’s name.
By contrast, officials made no such distinction as recently as last year, after Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez, 24, shot at a Chattanooga military recruiting office before driving to a Navy reserve center and opening fire, killing four Marines and a sailor. The Boston Marathon bombers’ names were also widely publicized.
Jim Davis, a former Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Denver office, said there was no discussion of names years ago, including after the arrest of Najibullah Zazi, the Afghan-American cab driver convicted in a thwarted plot to blow up New York City’s subway system in 2009.
“We have no idea if it’s going to prevent these kinds of acts by others,” said David Schanzer, a Duke University public policy professor who runs a center that studies extremism. “But denying them that level of notoriety in an age in which individuals want to bring attention to themselves, I just think it makes sense.”
Associated Press writers Eric Tucker, Kevin Freking and Eileen Sullivan contributed to this report.