When terrorists beheaded Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002 and posted video of the killing online, I refused to look. I explained my reasoning in this space. To watch that video, I wrote, knowing it was staged specifically to fill me with revulsion and fear, would feel like cooperating with the monsters who killed him. It would make me an accomplice.
I didn’t want to see. I didn’t want that blood on my soul.
Not long after that column appeared, I did see Pearl die. The video of his killing showed up in my inbox, sent by a stranger. Before I even knew what was going on, a terrorist was on my computer screen holding up the head of this 38-year-old husband and expectant father.
And I learned a sobering truth about murder and media in the new millennium. Increasingly, the decision about what we will and will not see is not ours to make. Increasingly, we are at the mercy, not simply of murderous monsters, but also of our own friends, family and colleagues who act as their henchmen, forwarding, re-tweeting and re-posting their grisly misdeeds as casually as neighbors in another age might have shared recipes over the back fence.
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If there were ever any doubt about that, what happened last Wednesday morning on live local television in Roanoke, Virginia, just laid them to rest. It wasn’t just that former WDBJ news reporter Vester Lee Flanagan II shot and killed two former colleagues — news reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward — as they interviewed local official Vicki Gardner, who was wounded but is expected to survive.
Wretched as it was, that kind of event is ordinary in America, the fabric of any given Wednesday. But Flanagan, who committed suicide as police closed in on him hours later, went well beyond the wretched ordinary. He filmed the murder with his cellphone, tweeted about it, posted the video on Facebook.
For good measure, he faxed his manifesto to ABC News; it is said to be a 23-page rant in which Flanagan, who was black and gay, blames racism, homophobia, the Charleston massacre and micromanaging former bosses for sending him over the edge. He also expresses his dislike for whites, Latinos and blacks and his admiration for the mass killers who shot up Columbine High School and Virginia Tech.
In other words, he curated this murder, used tools of social media — and traditional media — to manage it like a PR campaign. In essence, he provided us his press kit. And while that bespeaks a deranged man’s incomprehensible narcissism, it also suggests a canny understanding of his target audience: us.
Indeed, within hours, the video of Flanagan’s atrocity was so ubiquitous online that Ella, one of my colleagues, posted that she was signing off for the day after being ambushed by it. She was, she wrote, just “being silly” with Facebook friends, and the next thing she knew, there was death, live on her screen. “I can’t stop crying. I wasn’t ready. … What are we becoming?”
“The world,” wrote William Wordsworth, “is too much with us.” This was in 1806, 200 years before the first tweets and Facebook postings.
Yet the poet’s words seem to capture something true about our time, when we live cheek-by-jowl online, connected to one another in ways he could never have imagined, and some people post murder porn like a new music video, as if it has never occurred to them that not everyone will not want to see this — or can bear to do so.
You’d think you’d have a right to make that decision for yourself. But these days, apparently, that’s no longer your call to make.
This, then, is Vester Flanagan’s perverse triumph. He has made witnesses of us all.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a Pulitzer Prize-winning Miami Herald columnist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.