Nothing captures the public’s attention like a named killer. Jack the Ripper. The Boston Strangler. Son of Sam. Zodiac. The Night Stalker. The Green River Killer. Last month, a new name was added to this list: The Craigslist Killer. It turns out that Philip Markoff, the medical student who was arrested (and who has pled not guilty) for the murder of Julissa Brisman in Boston, is not the first killer dubbed “The Craigslist Killer.” In fact, quite a few murderers who met their victims via the popular classified advertising site have been dubbed “The Craigslist Killer.” What’s interesting about this latest murder, however, is the response from the administrators of Craigslist.
Police claim Markoff had attacked several other women in the days leading up to his alleged murder of Brisman. He apparently found his victims on Craigslist in the “Erotic Services” section of the online advertising site (although it isn’t clear that all of them were found in that section–I’m making an assumption based on Craigslist’s response to the murder). An earlier victim, for example, had advertised as an exotic dancer. Brisman advertised her services as a masseuse. When Brisman was shot, Markoff was allegedly attempting to restrain her, presumably in as a prelude to robbing her, as he had his earlier victims. By all accounts, Markoff is an unlikely suspect, a Boston University medical school student with no criminal record and no history of legal problems.
In the wake of this murder and series of crimes against women, several attornies general have called on Craigslist to do something to prevent future use of the web site by predators. Craigslist has responded. They will remove the section called “Erotic Services” and replace it with an “Adult Services” section that will be “monitored” by Craigslist employees. Any sexually suggestive advertisements will expire after seven days. This response appears to have satisfied the attornies general for now but to me, this is an example of what Bruce Schneier has called “security theater,” an action which is about making us feel safer without any real consequence to actual safety.
To see what I mean by this, think about the Brisman case. She was advertising her services as a masseuse. I’m not sure whether her advertisement was under “Erotic Services” but let’s assume it was. I’m also not sure whether her advertisement was sexually suggestive but again, let’s assume it was. So if someone were to write the exact advertisement that she had used today, Craigslist employees would review it and presumably decide it was one of the ads that needs to expire in seven days. In those seven days, many Markoff clones would review that ad and presumably call for those services. Is the woman now any safer than Brisman was? And after the ad expires, the woman will now write a new ad. Does the fact that her ad expired in seven days make her any safer? And what is more likely to happen is that the woman advertising masseuse services will NOT write a sexually suggestive ad (because she know that it will expire in seven days) and will therefore, NOT have her ad expire in seven days. Is she any safer than Brisman was?
It is completely unclear to me how a Craigslist employee reviewing “Adult Services” advertisements could have saved Julissa Brisman. So perhaps what we should be calling for is the complete elimination of both “Erotic Services” and “Adult Services” advertisements. Brisman was advertising as a masseuse. Do we want to go so far as to claim that ALL massages have an underlying erotic dimension and that they therefore should ALL be banned from advertisement? Why don’t we ban those advertisements from all newspapers, both in print and online, then? In fact, there have been many murders in which the murderer and victim met through newspaper classified ads (just google “lonely hearts killers” to get a sense) and yet those advertisements have not been banned. Maybe they should be. But then we should also ban all advertisements for masseuse services from the Yellow Pages, right? In fact, maybe we should ban massages altogether.
The response by Craigslist to the fact that an alleged murderer met his victim via their web site is all about theater, about making us feel safer rather than really making us safer. In actuality, nothing could have stopped Markoff from robbing someone and in those robberies, someone who resisted him was likely to get injured and perhaps even killed. Why do we need to kid ourselves otherwise?
I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in astrophotography, game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.