Did you watch the video? Did you go online to tell people not to watch the video? Did some bleak, rubbernecking corner of your soul wish you could watch the video? Or did you take solace, maybe even pride, in looking away?
These are the arguments we have with each other, with the world, and with ourselves in our modern marketplace of real-time tragedy.
If it makes you feel a tiny bit better, those responding online to Wednesday’s shootings in Virginia have generally been horrified and respectful, with many urging their fellow Tweeters and Facebook followers not to repost or even play the video taken by the killer. But of course that video is still out there, because you cannot put the genie back in its digital bottle. It’s in our cultural bloodstream now. Can we even talk about it without giving a criminal the fame he wanted?
Here is all that matters: Two people are dead. Alison Parker, 24, a reporter for WDBJ7 in Roanoke, Va., and her cameraman, Adam Ward, 27. They were broadcasting a live report early Wednesday morning in the Blue Ridge Mountains, interviewing a Chamber of Commerce official named Vicki Gardner. A man walked up and fired eight shots from a handgun. Parker and Ward died. Gardner was taken to the hospital and listed in stable condition after emergency surgery.
Who was the killer? Why did he kill? Does it matter? If you’re of the opinion that even mentioning his name gives him a measure of glory, feel free to stop reading. But it’s worth chewing over the way his actions were staged for the widest possible audience — an audience that only has to glance down at their phones or click a link on a web page to get a front-row seat.
His name was Vester Lee Flanagan II, but he worked as an on-air reporter under the name Bryce Williams. He had been fired from WDBJ7 in 2013, as well as from a previous job, for bizarre behavior. According to reports circulating Wednesday, he had amassed a litany of grievances, real or imagined, against white co-workers who he felt were racist.
He was angry and unhinged, and no one was giving him attention, so he shot and killed two station employees, posted a cellphone video of his crime on Facebook, and then tweeted a link to the video. By late morning, he had shot himself in the head following a police chase; he died in custody in the afternoon.
The station’s broadcast footage of the shootings was recirculating on the Web by early morning. It doesn’t show much: a jumble of confusion, the sound of eight gunshots, Parker’s screams. Flanagan’s 54-second video, by contrast, is chilling in the banality with which it begins and the finality with which it ends. It’s a POV shot that wanders up to the camera crew and their subject, none of whom appears to pay attention. The barrel of a gun becomes visible at the bottom of the frame. Then the shots. I watched the video in order to write this article, but you don’t need to. Trust me: It’s genuinely awful — a real-life first-person shooter. To give it your time makes you feel complicit in the deaths of two innocent people.
Of course, for some people out there, that’s a thrill. And, honestly, a part of me wanted to look, wondering how bad it could be. The unknown always sucks us in; it’s only after it becomes known that we feel the shame. Twitter and Facebook took down Flanagan’s accounts, but not fast enough: The video metastasized to the greater Web, and the conversation began. Who are you serving by reposting it or even watching it? Is ignoring it worse?
Already there had been blowback against Twitter users who embedded the station’s footage in their feeds, where it unreeled even if you didn’t click on it. Now the victims’ co-workers and other news professionals started weighing in. The station’s meteorologist Brent Watts tweeted “Our WDBJ crew was literally ambushed this morning. Please DO NOT share or post the video.”
Other comments from across the Twitterverse: “Be socially responsible and refrain from watching/sharing the videos. Be better than that.” “The media should stop reporting on the suspect. Instead, focus on the lives of Alison and Adam.” “If you post video of the #WDBJ shooting I will unfollow you so fast. Don’t sensationalize slaughter.” “Instead of sharing gunman’s video, share what appears to be #AlisonParker’s last story on foster child abuse.” “Don’t tell me his name. Don’t share his words. Just another petulant man with a gun.”
Worthy sentiments. And still you know that just as many people, if not more, were pressing “play.” Witnessing death is a taboo; plenty of folks are drawn to taboos. (That’s partially why they’re taboos.) We just haven’t had an endless amount of storage space for atrocity before. When JFK was shot in 1963, Life magazine bought the rights to the Zapruder film, published 30 frames in its Nov. 29 issue, then sat on the footage for years. Millions saw Lee Harvey Oswald get shot to death by Jack Ruby on TV, but there was no commercially available way to rewatch news video — our mental image of the event remains still photography.
In January 1987, Pennsylvania state treasurer R. Budd Dwyer shot himself at a press conference he had called a day before he was to be sentenced on corruption charges; local state newscasts that aired the full footage were severely criticized, as were newspapers that printed sequential images from the video.
For a while, the Dwyer tape was an unseen rumor, the thing you weren’t supposed to see. Now, of course, you can find it on the Web.
With the WDBJ7 shootings, the usual agendas and opinions immediately attached to the event. It’s about race; it isn’t about race. We need gun control; don’t exploit a tragedy to push for gun control. The killer played too many video games; the killer was “just” mentally ill. The most depressing aspect is that next week we’ll be on to the next horror show, while those who loved Alison Parker and Adam Ward will wake up with empty hearts for the rest of their lives.
Short attention span outrage has become the pulse of our popular culture: This week two murdered journalists, last month a dentist who kills lions, and next Monday, sad to say, it may be another African-American dead at the hands of police. Unequal examples, obviously, except in the way they’re leveled by the roar of social media, each event working us into a lather before disappearing beneath the waves of a general malaise and a spreading sense of helplessness.
The videos, when they come, are evidence and, as such, important. They’re also the darkest form of entertainment: testaments to death that make us feel, ever so briefly, alive. We tell ourselves we’re better than that. And yet, why are we so drawn to watching it?Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.