There’s a legitimate reason to be angry at the front page of today’s New York Daily News, and the reason is that a crass newspaper with a history of a gleeful amorality has exploited a tragedy for profit and buzz. (Ed. note: The Daily News’s cover image is below and contains disturbing images.)
And there’s also an illegitimate reason to be angry at that same front page—the bizarre, pervasive concept that if we hide from the images of something horrific, we can pretend that it never actually happened.
Here’s what actually happened: A disgruntled former employee killed two co-workers in a crime that would be absolutely mundane, by this country’s fucked-up standards, except for one incidental fact—there was video. Two videos, actually. The gunman, Vester Lee Flanagan II, filmed himself with a GoPro camera as he walked up a balcony, muttered the word “bitch,” and opened fire with a Glock pistol on WBDJ reporter Alison Parker, 24, and cameraman Adam Ward, 27, in Roanoake, VA. The station’s own camera was also running, providing a second video source that captured Parker’s horror, and her desperate sprint to safety, as the bullets flew. After he fled the scene, Flanagan tweeted about the shooting, uploaded his video to Facebook, and faxed a 23-page manifesto to ABC News—citing everything from the Charleston shootings to sexual harassment to Virginia Tech mass murderer Seung-Hui Cho as inspiration. Then he killed himself.
That’s the grim truth, and here’s another one: Without the audiovisual and social media elements, this would barely register as a blip on America’s overburdened radar. In an incredible piece of data-based journalism, Vox’s German Lopez showed that there have been 885 mass shootings (with at least four victims) in the U.S. since the Sandy Hook massacre in late 2012, and we’re averaging about one per day in 2015. The Roanoke killings stand out because many of us actually saw the killings take place, but aside from the strange amount of documentation, nothing about it was exceptional. It was ordinary. In fact, it barely even qualified as a “mass shooting” by Vox standards, and would have fallen short of that metric if Flanagan hadn’t turned the gun on himself.
The whole incident was flat-out typical, and if reading that description offends you, good, because in order to come to terms with the reality of violent crime in our nation, you need to accept the fact that the atrocity we just watched is, somehow, standard. As a friend told me yesterday, it’s the same old story, but with better packaging.
But I don’t believe that most people want to confront that truth, at least directly. It’s fine to talk about disturbing trends in the abstract, but when faced with the ugly reality of what those numbers actually look like, in the plain light of day, we retreat. We can reconcile ourselves to the theoretical existence of nightmares, somewhere beyond the horizon, but a nightmare made manifest sparks a nationwide urge to bury our heads in the sand. So we blame the New York Daily News for spreading the images, because we like blaming something concrete when we can’t blame an infected society that is too difficult to pin down or a perpetrator that is too dead to punish. Make no mistake—the outrage directed at a newspaper is very much influenced by this innate desire to hide from the truth, and the innate desire to hide from the truth is a form of tacit denial. And this cowardly “see no evil” bullshit is driving us all further into complacency.
Why am I glad that the images of Parker facing down the barrel of a gun made the front page? Because, sensational journalism aside, actually watching the sickening footage of a terrified young woman being murdered by a psychopath may actually get a point across. Maybe it will stop the willful ignorance, and the ridiculous cycle of superficial recovery that ends with finding hope and meaning in something that is both hopeless and meaningless. Maybe it will wake us up to the pain that we cause each other, and the changes we desperately need to make.
Let’s go back to Sandy Hook. Imagine if we had video footage of Adam Lanza terrorizing those 20 school kids and six adults in a fit of calculated madness. Imagine you could see the panic on the children’s faces as they tried to flee, only to be cut down and murdered by a raging lunatic with a Bushmaster rifle. Imagine you could watch the teachers desperately trying to barricade their students inside a classroom as Lanza paced the hallways, searching for new victims. If we had seen it happen, rather than reading about it, maybe it would have made a difference in Washington.
But there was no video, and what did we get instead? A country so deep in denial that a large faction has convinced themselves it didn’t happen. These are the same people that will believe any third-rate conspiracy theory about the government—who legitimately think Obama is on the verge of invading Texas, a landmass that already belongs to the United States—and they want to keep their guns so badly that they’ll pretend those kids didn’t die, as long as it saves them from examining their batshit beliefs.
Answer this: Why did the first George Bush ban news media outlets from photographing coffins of U.S. soldiers returning from Iraq? Why did that ban continue under his son’s reign? The answer is that they both knew something important about American citizens—as long as you don’t shove violent death in our faces, we’re too happy to look away. We’ve taken our human capacity for empathy and abstract reasoning and shoved it back toward dark pre-history, when we were uncaring animals. If you don’t show the dead people, the Bushes knew, the living won’t care. At least not enough to matter.
And believe me, we’re all picking up the message—especially young people. College kids on the right won’t read books that challenge their beliefs. College kids on the left are eagerly censoring speech that makes them uncomfortable. Even the Washington Post can write words like these with a straight face:
If we’ve learned anything from this incident, it’s that we do have a choice. We can click pause. We can turn off auto-play. We can, as many others have done, encourage people not to look. Counterspeech is what should be restoring our faith in humanity today.
Avoidance, somehow, has become heroic—as though depriving a dead man of attention is a panacea that will stop future tragedy in its tracks. It’s a wonderful fantasy, conjured up by clueless, over-privileged liberals who have no idea how the world works, and the best part is that in order to participate, all you have to do is bravely avert your gaze. How easy!
So why are we really upset at the Daily News? It’s not because they put a series of three images on a broadsheet. We’ve already seen the video, and the video is far worse. It’s not really because they’re profiting from tragedy; that’s their modus operandi, it’s been going on forever, and under different circumstances we’ve laughed at their audacity. We’re mad at the Daily News because greed has ruined our economy, racism is poisoning our people, a bigot is leading the presidential polls, and our oligarchic version of fuck-the-middle-class “democracy” is about as far off from the constitutional ideal as Stalin’s Soviet Union was from the worker’s utopia conceived by Karl Marx. We’re mad because the Daily News held up a mirror, and we loathe the mirror instead of loathing the image reflected back. We’re mad because they’re rubbing our noses in our own filth. We’re mad because it’s getting harder and harder to disguise the rotting core of the American dream.
This country is infected, and unless things change fast—which they won’t, if recent history is any indication—America will die. I don’t want America to die. I love this place. We’re so badly fucked, but I love it anyway, and if a few pictures on the front page of a newspaper drive us closer to some kind of self-reflection, then I’m glad we’re being forced to look.
Go find the video of Vester Lee Flanagan killing two people. Watch it. I don’t care if it hurts. This is who we are. As long as we ignore it, the only guarantee is that we’ll never get better.