The death of two journalists in Virginia on Wednesday morning was not the first of its kind to be caught on live television – but this time there was a second camera capturing a second angle.
Vester Lee Flanagan filmed the murder as it happened from his viewpoint and broadcast the footage on his social media accounts; and it was the act of filming that ensures we call the tragic deaths of Alison Parker and Adam Ward “the murder” and not “his murder”. This chilling firsthand documentation makes the deplorable killings unique not because it was shot to be released (the videos of the ISIS beheadings have become all too common an occurrence in the past year) but because it was shot by the man firing the shots, who was looking through the lens as it happened. Flanagan alienated himself from the act and became a witness to the murders by placing a camera between himself as the killer and his victims, at once taking the position of the camera, thus separate from the action. Flanagan prostrated himself as an innocuous bystander shucking responsibilities for the death and justifying his actions – because, as the cameraman, they were not his own.
There has been a heated debate in the past year as to whether people should watch the videos ISIS post online and whether or not that makes the viewer complicit in the murder. In this case, the killer made himself just another viewer and so removed himself from any involvement in the murderous act. He was the object of the internet’s subjectivity, of the thousands of anonymous usernames around the world who will watch his video, acting for them and not himself – otherwise why else would he have filmed it?
This detachment is not the cold, sterile work of a psychopath, but a possible state for the everyman. The camera became the killer because the camera decreed the act – the murder was for film, not for Flanagan, and so the film becomes the murderer and he its trigger-pulling object. He removed his agency from the situation by pressing record and instantaneously transforming the private sphere of murder into a public spectacle. Is that not how the hangman could tie the noose around the criminal’s neck without a twinge of remorse for the humanity he was about to destroy? Because of his audience who demanded death? Who desired a show? Could he not justify his act of murder in its own right as the deliverance of the mass’ demands? Looking through another’s eyes always leaves us with an objective view, a removed stance – Flanagan found a way to capture that objective spectatorship through the capturing of his murder on screen. He discovered a method that allowed him to pull the trigger and cause the death of two innocent people with no agency on his part. He found a way to kill without being a killer.
Often in horror films a character puts distance between theirself and the creature – the frightful other – by looking at its appearance through a video camera. They can only stomach the horror of the unknown by placing a camera between it and them, by creating the illusion it may not exist, that it is not in their reality. That deliberate alienation gives them the ability to face the monster because it is the camera that is now the subject, the focus, and they are simply witness to whatever action is imminent; they other themselves from the situation in order to participate in it. Filming is not merely a method of documentation, of creation, of storing, but it allows the camera to take the brunt of reality and the cameraman to become secondary in the reality, to become the objective tool of technology, complicit – but not active – once the record button is hit. And a film made for sharing, made with the public sphere in mind, instantly dilutes authority, forcing the spectator to take the same amount of responsibility for the tool’s actions. Flanagan created the same distance between himself and the murder through the lens as the viewer does between themselves and the crime through the screen.
This poses another serious truth concerning the viewer’s stance as an objective spectator. We can no longer ignore the fact that the consumption of a murderous recording is an act in itself, albeit not the act caught on camera. However, because Flanagan shared the footage so quickly on his social media accounts after the killings, must we not face the possibility that he murdered Parker and Ward for his audience’s consumption? And because the footage is shot from his perspective, it is not a far accusation that he captured their deaths not as a narcissistic spectacle in which he could see himself carry out the killings, but for the public spectacle in which he could take the same position as any other viewer. Therefore, considering our own trigger-fingers hovering over the mouse clicking play at anything the internet throws our way, are we not also guilty for allowing ourselves to be an audience Flanagan could shoot his film for, and thus justify the shooting of two innocent people?
Flanagan has dangerously given birth to a new form of murder; one in which no one is the agent of death, but everyone is the witness. The distortion of the act through the lens granted him the same separation, the same alienation, from the murder as his audience. The utmost violence here was not the shooting, but the thrusting of it from the private into the public sphere as it happened through the camera, ridding himself of any agency. He acted as the object, as the tool, of his grand subject – the camera. He gave this everyday piece of technology the power to kill and implicated all of us as its objective viewers just as he distanced himself from the inhumane violence. It is this distancing that enabled him to pull the trigger without being the killer.