Alison Parker and Adam Ward were shot to death last week in Roanoke, Va. Soon thereafter, suspect Vester Flanagan shot himself as police closed in.
You know all about it. All about it, including Flanagan’s checkered work history and his catalogue of grievances toward his ex-employer and white racists and homophobes. You even know his erstwhile professional name, Bryce Williams. Why do you know those things? Surely not because of the violence itself. A gun murder in the United States has all the novelty of a departure from Roanoke-Blacksburg Airport.
It isn’t the body count that got your attention, either. Three dead -- it sickens me to say -- has lost any measure of newsworthiness. Aurora, Co: 12 dead. Virginia Tech: 32 dead. Sandy Hook: 26 dead. Ft. Hood: 13 dead. Columbine HS: 13 dead. Vester Flanagan, former local newsman, well knew that a double murder is no path to prime time.
Unless it were somehow to influence public policy. Ha ha. As if.
None of the hundreds of thousands of gun murders and suicides over the past 30 years, including the slaughter of moviegoers, high-school kids and Connecticut first-graders, has emboldened cowardly legislators to fight the metastatic evil that is the NRA. There is no single event -- nor endlessly mounting collection of tragedies -- capable of weakening the gun lobby’s stranglehold.
So, no. It’s not that.
You personally know about Alison and Adam for one reason and one reason alone: it happened live on TV, like disgraced Pennsylvania pol Budd Dwyer’s 1987 suicide, like O.J. Simpson’s slow-speed chase -- hell, like Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction.
It is possible, I suppose, that because the victims were white TV journalists, the item might have been number four in a wire-service roundup of the day’s notable murders. Or not. But like Caitlin Jenner’s transformation and Paris Hilton’s sex romp, the episode was caught on video and suddenly it was not a mere commonplace crime or anonymous tragedy, but a must-see reality show.
The lip service of condolence has been duly rendered, the boilerplate pieties -- our "thoughts and prayers" -- duly expressed. But as long as we’re talking about life and death here, let’s be real: how many times did you watch the video?
Come on, viral Roanoke is no more about tragedy than it is about news. It’s about the frisson of being an eyewitness, and the social-media fueled orgy of voyeurism. YouTube is rich with sudden-death videos, of course, racking up so many millions of views that they’re sponsored by advertisers. Thank you, Michelob Ultra, for “Business Woman Killed Instantly by Skidding Out of Control Car.” Thank you, Stella Artois, for “Man Killed Instantly.”
Unsurprisingly, there’s a whole Web site for this fare. TheYNC.com is equal parts horrifying gore and porn -- which is to say, 100% porn.
But Roanoke wasn’t just your garden variety macabre spectacle. It was the apotheosis of post-modern media. Because in addition to live TV and endless replays, there was to follow that second video, recorded by the shooter from his own point of view. Now there is a way to get to a Top 50 market. All of them, in fact, all at once. Just as the shooter knew it would.
As if the product of a dark Hollywood satire on media culture -- a la "Natural Born Killers," "The King of Comedy" or "The Truman Show" -- the gruesome act overflowed with self-reference. An alleged killer filming and releasing a reverse angle of what the victims were recording of their own deaths, all with a million-fold more audience than the video they had been broadcasting to a handful of southwestern Virginians for years.
For ironic good measure, the particular terminology for this sort of news segment is “live shot.” Deranged killing as performance art. A perfect, premeditated metamurder.
All I ask for you to remember is that unlike "Natural Born Killers" and very much like "Rashomon," there is in this horror a third point of view. It is that of the grieving and altogether untitillated loved ones of Alison Parker and Adam Ward. They are planning funerals and trying to pick up the pieces, if they’ve even managed to catch their breaths.
They don’t think this is a show.