A NEW TWIST ON WEEKLY SHOOTING
Former TV Newsman Kills TV News People on TV
This is the beauty and horror of living as long as I have; you tend to see it all. Well, you think you see it all and then this past Wednesday happens. Former disgruntled local news guy, 41 year-old Vester Flanigan aka fancy TV name, Bryce Williams, shoots 24 year-old WDBJ feature reporter, Alison Parker and her camera man, 27 year-old Adam Ward, killing both, and fatally wounding the subject of the report, Vicki Gardner, the middle-aged director of the chamber of commerce for Roanoke, Virginia. The whole thing happens on live TV and is later posted on Facebook and tweeted by Flanigan before he is run down by local police and shoots himself dead.
This is a murder/suicide emblematic of our media-obsessed times. A TV guy shoots other TV people on TV and uses social media to promote it. Later, the obligatory incoherent hate manifesto emerged, also posted somewhere on the Internet, where all ugly things eventually reside, like these words, and whatever you will absorb after reading this.
Make no mistake, I am not decrying the Internet or television or social media, nor am I citing it as the only motivation for a kook to murder people, but just like freedom – freedom from invasive and presumptive state or federal regulations on mental health, freedom to own and carry a deadly weapon, freedom to spew odious propaganda online or really anywhere you wish, and freedom for predators to skulk from victim to victim undeterred – it can be a dangerous game.
And as much as it pains me to spend two consecutive weeks discussing the media’s role in events when I have maybe touched upon this ancillary subject once or twice at most in 18 years of penning this weekly column, it does indeed play a role. And it is not something that can be or should be easily curtailed. News happens and news organizations must cover it, some of those news organizations bring cameras and those cameras roll 24 hours a day, five days a week, 365 days a year, and thus are a powerful attraction to the one constant in these random killers, whether terrorists or lone crazies: They dig being covered.
The coverage is a spotlight to the killer; a spotlight not afforded them in their otherwise empty, grueling, oppressed existence. It gives them purpose and it gives them honor, the honor of being remembered for something where they will likely live out their subsistence in crushing isolation and unending anonymity. Vester Flanigan is chubby loner living in a one-room apartment with no job, no prospects, no friends, and as a result, no self-esteem or hope. His alter ego, made for television, Bryce Williams was dynamic, lovable, and good enough to have someone point a camera at and for people to watch it. The management at WDBJ fired the effervescent Bryce Williams and turned him into the pathetic loser, Flanigan.
Sitting in a deli yesterday watching a CNN reporter standing in front of the small WDBJ studios in sleepy, otherwise quiet and peaceful Roanoke, the signs of dozens of other television news outlets crammed around him, surrounding the place, was surreal. Here is a news station, used to covering the news, being covered for a tragedy; a tragedy (again surreal) that had befallen it whilst rolling cameras and reporting the news (or at least some local TV version of news).
I realize bitching about too much news and an overload of information is as useless an endeavor as complaining about too many guns. How much is too many guns? How much is too much information? How much is too much freedom?
For the past 15 years, since 9/11, there has been constant chatter about how much our civil liberties should be compromised in order to protect ourselves from violence. The most egregious was the Patriot Act, but there have been others subtle forms, (racial profiling, protests against the building of mosques, the simple idea of everyone being a watchdog against everyone else “If you see something, say something”) and less so (outlandish airport security, street cameras, frisking at sporting events, etc.). But in every instance there is only so much you can do to protect the citizenry from itself. By nature a free society has consequences, just as one living in a lockdown has its own dark drawbacks.
This is a murder/suicide emblematic of our media-obsessed times.
I have written way too many times to be comfortable about these shooting tragedies and human nature, accepting the fact that by the very fabric of allowing you and me to roam free without harassment in the relative and constitutionally-provided cover of privacy – everyone having a camera on their hip notwithstanding – is a risk we are always willing to make; “Give me liberty or give me death.”
Sometimes, Mista Henry, you get both.
And so, of course, we cannot dissect the allure of the televised murder, anymore than we can have a serious discussion about the amount of guns we have out there, or more pointedly the risk one takes when firing someone that might come back blasting away at the purveyor of his misery. Notice how I didn’t put “his/her” there; it is always “his”, another fun aspect of our male humanity.
It is also foolish to not recognize that by giving infamy to those who would otherwise wallow in a meaningless existence is seductive to these vipers. The fact that I have just written about a guy who a few days ago would be lucky to get someone to nod at him with any kind of socially acceptable street behavior shows that it works. Killing someone in this wildly dynamic manner gives you an immortality you would never get in a million years of being the miserable little shit, Vester Flanigan.