The WDBJ7 Tragedy

Photograph of Alison Parker and Adam Ward shared by WDBJ7-TV

Photo: Twitter: @WDBJ7

By Emmet O’Cuana

I wish I had not watched the footage.

It was late last night. I should have been asleep. But I saw the headline on the online culture website Boing Boing describing a shooting that occurred live on air. I did not click to read the article – it immediately felt like an escalation of what we now consider acceptable horror. The cheapness of life stolen by gun violence, immediately mitigated by debates surrounding the ‘politicisation’ of deaths, or whether or not such atrocities should be considered domestic terrorism.

Everyday tragedies reduced to white noise and political agendas.

I have less and less patience with the so-called gun control debate. I avoided reading the article on Boing Boing, because I was aware despite yet another tragedy having taken place, nothing would be done, the same nonsense would re-occur in the aftermath and that made me exhausted.

I was tired. It was time to go to bed. I checked my messages on Twitter. In my feed I saw many posts about the horrible events in Roanoke, VA.

Then it happened. The shooter had planned his attack on Alison Parker and Adam Ward, former colleagues at WDBJ7, a CBS network affiliate. Shortly after the deaths were initially reported – with the live broadcast cut off as soon as the shooting began – a recent account shared video footage.

The footage was from the point of view of the shooter.

Social media sites have a recently introduced function called autoplay. This means when you scroll past a video in your feed, it automatically is queued to play. This can occasionally be embarrassing for users – loud music blasting suddenly from your work computer is not a good look – but it is a measure used by the likes of Facebook and Twitter to generate engagement.

People are more obliged to watch if the option to press play is removed.

Last night the shooter’s camera footage began to play on my feed. I thankfully had the sound off. I saw the approach, I saw the reveal of the gun and I saw the chaos of the shooting itself.

I felt sick afterwards. What made the shooting more disturbing for me was what it reveals about how we, as a society, have learned to compartmentalise these tragedies.

The debate is a familiar one. I could point you to the stats showing an escalation in gun deaths in the States. I could refer you to the latest emotional appeal from a parent who has lost their child. Or we could take a deep breath and wade through this latest shooter’s manifesto.

There is a formula to these events, a routine. We know it. It is familiar.

Where the incident in Roanoke showed an escalation was the fact that the shooter and two of his victims were all journalists. Suddenly the centrality of ‘the News’ in the modern phenomenon of mass shootings is under a microscope.

The shooter planned and set in motion a sequence of events designed to tell his story. At the expense of his victims’ lives, he created a narrative where he was presented as a victim. Reportedly his manifesto claimed the Charleston church shooting by a white supremacist that claimed the lives of nine worshipers was the catalyst for his own attack.

So not only did the shooter execute Alison Parker and Adam Ward in a fashion reminiscent of a performance – revealing the gun to camera, ensuring the intended victims were identified for the ‘viewers at home’, – he exploited the murders of nine others to justify his actions.

And he did it all with the knowledge that his story, his framing of the events – posting pictures of himself smiling and posing for the camera before directing people to his video – would be shared by users of social media. He knew how the news would report his story, because he had himself been a reporter for the news.

The shooter sought celebrity through murdering two people, because he felt his story, his life, was deserving of more recognition. His psychology is of little interest to me personally. No doubt there is a category for his behaviour that offers some explanatory insight for people who derive assurance from such things. For me his actions were deliberated upon and chosen and that tells me all I need.

He was another man who felt slighted, like his colleague at Charleston, or Sandy Hook’s child killer, or that other video-maker/would-be assassin at Virginia Tech, perhaps going all the way back to the 1972 attempted murder of Senator George Wallace by a 21-year-old who claimed his act was a “statement of my manhood for all the world to see”.

In each the parallels, the clichés of the narcissist with a gun, are easy to pick out.

But the lives lost, the names of those cut down, were full of potential, unique, and deserving of remembrance.

I wish I had not watched the footage. I feel I have participated in some horrible staged performance. The only solution I can think of is that we celebrate the stories of those who cannot speak for themselves.

Their names are Alison and Adam.

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