Virginia gunman may have pulled the trigger – but the camera was the real killer

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.

‘He’s created a platform for ideas’: Russell Brand opens self-sufficient café in Hackney

Russell Brand’s revolution founded on self-sustaining communities today took physical form in the opening of “Trew Era Café” based in Hackney. The recovering comedian turned activist “burst through the doors” of the not-for-profit caf at 11am to address the crowd of 100 outside about the beginning of a future “without politics”.

But while the business is built on admirable foundations – Brand donated all profits from the paperback sales of his book ‘Revolution’ to the cause which he hopes will see “gnarly ex-offenders taking care of beehives” – the only connection the cafe has with the locals is its geographical connection.

As the crowd spilled out onto the street cars stopped to ask what was happening, and the fringe of the spillage was made up of locals who had stopped on their way to work: “I had no idea this was going on until today.”

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The press pen filled with staff journalists blocked the majority’s view from Brand who spent half his time giving TV interviews. And he inspired a lot of questions with his rousing opening speech in which he announced: “Politics is dead, this is the end of politics. We have the opportunity to create something better.”

Londoners who cannot afford a SW postcode are clamouring for that “something better” – rent increase is driving out locals everywhere, artists have no space to create and Westminster is entirely inaccessible to those who don’t have the time to make sense of politicians’ versions of the truth. Brand’s discursive is the crucial opening of discussion for change and inspiring a dissatisfied youth who he was once a member of. But this community of potential activists are in danger of championing Brand as their leader rather than engaging in the leaderless society he envisions. And while his ideas are revolutionary, his actions are not always cohesive to that vision.

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Opening a café at 11am on a Thursday meant the crowd was made up with those who have the time to not be at work. Instead of locals, the tables were filled with school-leavers, students and those who will “try and come every week, but I don’t live in London anymore.” And for all his words about self-sustenance, “Take control and start your own business”, when the man himself was asked to spare a few words to a freelancer who couldn’t get in the press pen he barely batted an eyelid.

Brand’s grand vision of a post-political society in which communities work together to provide for one another is just that – a grand vision too delicately balanced on his behaviour. It is others who are willing to dedicate themselves to that vision we should be looking to.

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But at least he’s doing something. Peter who works in the London Bike Kitchen two doors down said: “It’s really good that he’s doing stuff he believes makes sense and that feels valuable and worthwhile. I think it’s really good for the area.

“I have breakfast in the same café as him and I’ve chatted to him a couple of times and he seems like a really nice guy. We’re thinking of taking on the shop between us, and they were also thinking about taking it on, and he was really great about it – he thinks it’s great what we’re doing, and let us have it. He’s been really cooperative and lovely.”

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Perhaps Brand is just trying to fit too many of his ideals into one small coffee shop. The café may not be run by locals of Whitmore Road, but it is tapping into a community of the disenchanted and allowing them to find one another despite their differing postcodes. 17-year-old George from Essex thinks it is a “new platform” for ideas: “Everyone in here is talking about politics – I wouldn’t normally sit and talk about this.

“Russell talking about it so openly and believing in himself leads you to think you can do it too. You can treat people well and form a new way for the world to work.”

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The vision that inspired this café is immensely powerful and will be even more so if it is not intrinsically linked to Brand’s identity. He is no messiah, he is a man trying to inspire those to be their own champions, just as his ideal leaderless society demands. Rather than donating tools, Brand is showing communities a new colour palette with which to paint their own future. And with people as intelligent as young, working-class George involved, it might just happen: “You don’t need a person to support. You need an idea to support.”

This article was originally published on Prowl House.

Media: The tool between activism and apathy that isn’t being used

We’ve opted out of politics and into jagerbombs.

At the NUS Scotland conference a motion was passed that mandates their Full Time Officers to break the gagging law, which could potentially lead to some of NUS’s leaders spending time in prison.

An admirable stance by those Full Time Officers, no doubt, but the problem is that previous to this rather radical challenging, how many students were aware that the gagging law had passed two months previously and the effect it could have on their freedom of speech?

Not many. Political apathy is infectious and very difficult to combat, but I don’t believe political groups and active students are doing everything they can to do so. As the editor of a tabloid news site I can guarantee that the power of media is most certainly being overlooked in a time when every tool at their disposal needs to be utilized.

To many, “tabloid” is not what they want to associate their politics with. The thing is – what if the tabloid route is exactly what this country’s student movement needs? Thanks to social media we’re creating generations that thrive from gossip and instant gratification – online media and online news makes anything and everything instantly accessible and so can be picked up by national papers.

However, when they’re used to communicating in 140 chars, young people don’t want to read voluminous essays about what’s wrong with the world – they don’t want to have to digest and process (part of the problem), they want to be informed in an accessible, relatable manner that they can then present to their peers.

Gordon Maloney - NUS Scotland President
Gordon Maloney – ex-NUS Scotland President

Young people that are willing to make a change are already doing so and are willing to sift through blogs, articles, reports, and reach out to likeminded people. But they’re the minority, and not the audience that needs targeted. Politically apathetic students are those that need to be engaged because they are the majority, and until they are on board with political cause, then those who resist will only ever be labeled as “extremist minorities”.

It has always been far easier to side with a majority, and until political groups start communicating exactly what it is they want to achieve on a wider platform to a broader audience, they will always be battling against the ease of conformity that labels them as “radicals”.

But non-conformity can become normal again, and when the “extreme” tag is dropped from activists – and when “active” stops being a dirty word itself – then big changes can be implemented with a far stronger force behind it.

The government and universities and student unions are not communicating with us as students, as pupils of an education. We are marketed as consumers with education being a product. It is the easy way out for everyone involved – but many do not realize dissatisfaction is not the only option.

There are those that won’t want to get involved because ignorance is bliss and change “defamatory”. Activism is only something that has recently played a part in my own life, because I was unsure of how to challenge a system that I thought was failing me, and if it would be worth my time. As it turns out, there are, and always have been, hundreds of active ad dissatisfied students around me but we have no inkling how to reach out to one another and get involved with one another because causes and events are not being publicised or advertised.

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Communication is key. Activists must start utilizing every tool available to them in order to reach those they are trying to aid – including the media. I believe it’s time for activists to ask for help from those they may have previously mistrusted – including publications like The Tab. Media gives you access to platforms and audiences you may not have otherwise been able to communicate with. Having media on side also puts you on the same playing field as those you are challenging.

Manipulation of media by higher powers is something to be wary of. It takes a moment for the government to label those in disagreement “terrorists”, and from that moment your argument takes place under an extremist umbrella that society is not willing to be associated with.

But activists must not be afraid to combat it with exactly the same technique by expressing their side of the argument and promoting their fight. For example, considering how detrimental this gagging law could be to British democracy, why was the jump to mandate NUS leaders to break the law and potentially spend time in prison the first move made two months down the line? This extreme move would probably have more backing by the student body if the bill’s effect on freedom of speech had been initially presented to students, and the NUS had reached out for support from its members. Now, instead of the focus being on government creating dogmatic and extreme laws that threaten our freedom, students are more concerned with the fact their full time officers are going to break the law, because they have not been told why.

What this country needs is not a pressure group that includes a lot of their strongest leaders being flung in jail – it needs a wider platform to engage with the majority that aren’t willing to risk prison. Perhaps, instead of breaking the law, activists should inform their peers WHY they want to break the law, and ask their peers if they will help them NOT have to break the law.

Garnering a bigger student backing would achieve results, and also promote democracy, thus undermining the government’s stance in a far more potent way – by encouraging society to use its voice, which stands us in far greater stead for our future democratic state. Further, if the masses came on board, the act of breaking the law would no longer be decreed as “radical” or “extreme”, but instead asnecessary, and have a much greater impact on that which is being challenged.

We can be free, we must be free, and we must be progressive. However, to do so students must be informed why it affects them, and how they can help. Young people must be given options otherwise they will run in fear for their future in a time when government mandates fear to control futures.

Would I go to prison for freedom of speech? I would – but then again I’ve always been a drama queen. Would I ask my friends to? No, because I care about their welfare.

But would I ask them to protect free speech? Absolutely. Because that protection doesn’t have to be an outright attack – we have a right to defend our freedom and our education, and such a defense is a far wider and more accessible tool. It is also far easier to promote. There is a scale from petitions to jail time, and active groups need to detail exactly what that scale is to give students a choice on how to get involved – and to do so they should be using the media.

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Going to jail should not be the first step in getting people’s attention, but the final straw. I fear that the jump has been made too quickly and the NUS won’t have the masses on side because they have not informed Britain’s students as to why they will be doing so and what change they would like to see happen. There is no point in creating a martyr if society does not know what he/she is doing for them.

Student activists have jumped ahead of the crowd, as usual. But in a time of apathy this has not only left the masses in the dust, but also left them blind.

If fighting for education, student activists should put educating their fellow students – through whatever means necessary – at the top of their priorities. If we (yes, we) don’t communicate then we risk becoming that which we are desperately trying to affect.

Of course change needs to happen – the whole state of democracy in Britain needs to change – but it won’t happen successfully in the shadows.

We are all aware of the meaning behind the phrase “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” But in a post-modern society that is already free, is radicalism the most potent tool available to us, or is exactly that – our freedom to discuss, challenge and unite – perhaps a far stronger mode of engaging with our fight to remain free.

This article was originally published on The Tab Aberdeen.