On Sunday, when President Obama met with families of the shooting victims in Aurora, Colorado, he made a point of never mentioning the alleged shooter by name. In his public remarks after that meeting, the president said:
I had a chance to visit with each family, and most of the conversation was filled with memory. It was an opportunity for families to describe how wonderful their brother, or their son, or daughter was, and the lives that they have touched, and the dreams that they held for the future. I confessed to them that words are always inadequate in these kinds of situations, but that my main task was to serve as a representative of the entire country and let them know that we are thinking about them at this moment and will continue to think about them each and every day, and that the awareness that not only all of America but much of the world is thinking about them might serve as some comfort.
I also tried to assure them that although the perpetrator of this evil act has received a lot of attention over the last couple of days, that attention will fade away. And in the end, after he has felt the full force of our justice system, what will be remembered are the good people who were impacted by this tragedy.
In ancient Rome, a condemned citizen might not only lose his life. The Roman Senate could decree that all traces of his worldly existence be expunged. In Latin the term was damnatio memoriae -- condemned from memory. His name would be struck from public scrolls, his statuary likeness decapitated or reduced to rubble.
At a prayer vigil in Aurora honoring the dead, each time Governor John Hickenlooper (D, Colo.) spoke the name of each person who had been murdered, the crowd called out: "We will remember."
Referring to the alleged shooter as "Suspect A," Hickenlooper pointedly said, "I refuse to say his name." That remark drew loud cheers.
As individuals, we can comfort those who survive and mourn those who are lost. As a nation, however, we can put into practice what I first suggested in the wake of the atrocity in Tucson:
Let the psychoanalysts, law enforcement agencies and other professionals glean what they may from the words and images of the alleged shooter. One can hope they may find something that will help us prevent others from channeling their inchoate rage into violence.
Once the state convicts a mass murderer, we must collectively deny him all legacy. Do not speak his name. Turn away from his image. Let him and his foul memory fall into a pit from which nothing will emerge. Let our message to all who might commit such atrocities be clear: What awaits you is oblivion.