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The Technology of Violence: Vester Flanagan and the Aesthetics of Murder

On Wednesday August 26, 2015, Vester Lee Flanagan murdered a local news team on live air in Moneta, VA.  Alison Parker, 24, and Adam Ward, 27 were killed. Vickie Gardner, the woman interviewed by Parker as she was brutally gunned down, was also shot and wounded. Unique among recent mass murderers, Flanagan was conscious of the online trail he left, used it to sensationalize his activities, and crafted a murderous narrative through it that sadly resulted in the deaths of two people.

In a satirical essay penned in 1827 for Blackwood’s Magazine, Thomas De Quincey presaged Flanagan’s deadly performance. In his essay, De Quincey describes a fictitious lecture given to an imaginary “Society of the Connoisseurs of Murder.”  Plainly meant to mock the sensationalist Victorian obsession with manslaughter, De Quincey’s protagonist contends that murder, as art, is sublime. In the talk, the lecturer reasons that many human activities have two “handles”: one that assigns its moral status, the other its beauty. While the moral implications of murder may revolt us, it still can be appraised along a continuum of aesthetic beauty:

“Murder, for instance, may be laid hold of by its moral handle, (as it generally is in the pulpit, and at the Old Bailey;) and that, I confess, is its weak side; or it may also be treated æsthetically, as the Germans call it, that is, in relation to good taste.”

It’s clear that Flanagan wanted to us to watch. All of us. According to media reports, he created accounts on Twitter and Facebook the previous week and then used those accounts to post videos he allegedly captured during the shootings. His tweets began at 11:09am. At 11:14am, Flanagan tweeted two videos and posted one to Facebook.  In the unsettling videos, which are filmed in a style very similar to a first person shooter video game, the gunman approaches Parker and Ward with his gun extended. For a brief period of time, he stands there unnoticed. He backs up a little, drops his gun, moves forward again, raises the weapon, and begins shooting. During the subsequent police pursuit, Flanagan continued to post from these social media accounts, attempting to explain his actions. In a document faxed to ABC News on the morning of the shootings, a man claiming to be Flanagan describes his motives:

“Why did I do it? I put down a deposit for a gun on 6/19/15. The Church shooting in Charleston happened on 6/17/15…What sent me over the top was the church shooting. And my hollow point bullets have the victims’ initials on them."

As the story developed, however, Flanagan’s motives seem to be a conflagration of anger, resentment, and perceived injustice. In one part of the faxed manifesto, ABC News documents that Flanagan:

  • Says he has been attacked by black men and white females;
  • Talks about how he was attacked for being a gay, black man; and
  • Says has suffered racial discrimination, sexual harassment, and bullying at work.

Despite his reasons, what separates this murder from other recent, senseless killings is the degree to which Flanagan used social media to record and sensationalize his actions, as though he was seeking to outperform other similar massacres. In the faxed manifesto, Flanagan describes his fascination and admiration for the Virginia Tech mass killer Seung-Hui Cho and the Columbine High school murderers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris:

“Also, I was influenced by Seung–Hui Cho. That’s my boy right there. He got NEARLY double the amount that Eric Harris and Dylann Klebold got…just sayin.”

In a 2010 study, James Knoll, MD, Psychiatry Professor at SUNY Upstate Medical University, claims that many mass murderers see themselves as part of an internally constructed revenge fantasy. Knoll uses the term “pseudocommando” to describe killers of this type:

“The pseudocommando is a type of mass murderer who kills in public during the daytime, plans his offense well in advance, and comes prepared with a powerful arsenal of weapons. He has no escape planned and expects to be killed during the incident. Research suggests that the pseudocommando is driven by strong feelings of anger and resentment, flowing from beliefs about being persecuted or grossly mistreated. He views himself as carrying out a highly personal agenda of payback. Some mass murderers take special steps to send a final communication to the public or news media; these communications, to date, have received little detailed analysis. An offender's use of language may reveal important data about his state of mind, motivation, and psychopathology.”

Park Dietz, Associate Professor of Law at the University of Virginia School of Law, describes killers of this kind as “collectors of injustice.” 

By his own admission, Flanagan admired other mass murderers. And he was clearly interested in recording his behavior so that the world could witness it in real time. Uniquely, he is aware of his digital legacy. He is conscious of his digital footprint. He created social media accounts solely to air the killings. He faxed a manifesto to ABC News, and he tweeted his justification for the murders while pursued by police. He viewed his actions as not only “payback” for the grievances he had against the world, but also as theater. It’s as if he perceived his actions through a moral lens as well as an aesthetic one, similar to the “handles” that De Quincey’s character uses to describe the art of murder.  And while we all are horrified that Flanagan killed two innocent people and wounded a third, we should be equally disturbed that he understood the terrible, technical aesthetics of it.

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