There is an old story about how Native Americans, when first introduced to the camera, believed that it could steals their souls. Though usually taken as a story of primitive superstition, you can find a sort of retelling of it by Western writers like Susan Sontag and Daniel Boorstin, who also believed images could rob us of something essential—not by magic but by the power we place in them, our conceit that the subject of a photo or a video is revealed to us in fullness.
The ethics of images have been under debate again since the shooting deaths of two Roanoke journalists last week. This shooting was unusual not only for its unprecedentedly public nature—it happened on live TV, and the shooter quickly uploaded his own video to Twitter and Facebook—but for the general sentiment among the public against watching this footage.
There is a straightforward argument against sensationalized coverage of rampage shootings: it creates more rampage shootings. As I’ve described in the Wall Street Journal, the criminological evidence for a copycat effect is substantial. And a study released just two months ago offers the first systematic statistical evidence. Of course, of all the sciences, the social are the easiest to shrug at when we don’t like their conclusions, and that’s what most journalists have done.
Even those arguing against watching the footage have mostly made other arguments: First, that it traumatizes us and disrespects the victims. And second, that it gives the killer exactly what he wanted.
It should be obvious that these arguments are true, but they do not amount to a case against watching the footage. As Sam Biddle pointed out when he cheered the New York Daily News for its lurid front page, one could marshal the same arguments against viewing footage of 9/11. Asking us to looking away from the footage, says Biddle, is infantilizing, and broadcasting it is essential if we are to face the brutality of the world, and change it.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the editor of Gawker sees all gawking as bravery. But Biddle is channeling the ethos of journalism. What would the Vietnam War be in our minds, what course would it have taken, without images of a napalmed girl, or a Viet Cong prisoner summarily executed?
By the same token, it seems like special pleading to urge that people look away in this case when there was no such outcry for the videotaped deaths of Eric Garner and Tamir Rice. Doesn’t this suggest, as the LA Times’s Matt Pearce among others asked, that we bear a special sensitivity to the pain of white over black people?
But these crimes could hardly be more different. Police brutality and war atrocities thrive in the darkness of public ignorance. But rampage shootings are deliberately crafted spectacles. Under the light of attention, the one crime withers; the other grows to fruition and scatters new seeds.
It matters little now whether we’re giving this shooter what he wanted. The question is whether we’re telling potential future shooters that we’ll give them what they want. Our answer could hardly be clearer.
Still, the idea remains that in watching this footage we will learn, and be spurred to action. But this once-reasonable hope is now belied by several decades of experience. If the trouble is that the shootings at UT Austin, Columbine, Virginia Tech, Newtown, Aurora, and Roanoke were not sufficient shocks to the conscience, one shudders to imagine what would be.
Nor do we lack for information. There is little meaningful knowledge to be gained from the amount of journalistic scrutiny devoted to the shooters and their lives. I’ve read the writings of dozens of them, as well as the detailed psychological profiles that investigators have drawn up.
What I found is this: a numbing sameness to the men. Though their ideologies vary greatly, what they share is a massive, wounded narcissism, and an obsession with previous mass shootings, in which they see the means to fulfill their frustrated delusions of grandeur.
The perpetrator of this latest horror was as perfect an exemplar of this type as can be imagined. His only distinctions of character were a remarkable mastery of grievance and imagination for slights. He was just like the others. We keep peering into these men’s lives, looking for some satisfaction, seeking perhaps to glimpse the heart of darkness, finding only pitifulness.
When you subtract these unsurprising things away from this latest case, what remains is nothing more nor less than a video of the sudden, violent ends of two people, a moment in life as intimate and mysterious as its beginning, now rendered as the medium for one man’s perfectly crafted social-media message. And us, watching, and calling ourselves courageous.