Maiming, death, murder: the ugliest shadows of the human heart have always been with us, and have graced the evening news and the front pages of newspapers for decades.
In 2015, they stream right into our eyeballs, auto-playing on our devices without regard for our consent. Averting your gaze is the only recourse, and a temporary one at that. Wade back into your familiar everyday haunts and there it is again—a link in your feed, an embed in an article, a screencap in a trending hashtag.
The internet's disgust vies with the internet's morbid curiosity, struggling to both destroy and preserve all instances of this grisly documentation.
Nothing stays off the internet forever. Even in the age of the right to be forgotten, we know better than this. The internet broadcasts protests and revolutions when cable news programs won't. It draws attention to police brutality even when prosecutors turn a blind eye. It publishes voting machine scandals and State Department cables.
But it also brings us snuff films, revenge porn, and a database for wrecking marriages. The same features that have techno-utopians gushing about the promise of the internet are making us miserable. Maybe information wants to be free, but that says nothing about whether that information will make usfree.
Yesterday I watched my Twitter feed explode in anger as it discovered the social media accounts of a killer, right after he began posting videos of the moments leading up to the grisly slayings of Alison Parker and Adam Ward. A video of the murders already existed, caught on Ward's rolling news camera. But these were taken from the killer's perspective—shaky but not poor quality, no doubt taken with the relatively decent camera most of us already carry in our pockets. I started watching before I even realized what it was.
The camera moves purposefully towards Parker, Ward, and the interviewee. They loom closer and closer. Then he takes out the gun. It extends out from the bottom of the frame, foreshortened. The composition feels uncannily familiar. I realized later, to my disgust, that it's reminiscent of a barrel of a gun in a first-person shooter game.
I can only imagine that Twitter saw a sudden spike of reports for the same tweet—the killer's account was suspended within minutes. Meanwhile, YouTube was bombarded with DMCA takedowns for the video of the original live broadcast of the killing. Copies of all of the videos have since been re-uploaded. They won't stay down forever, and we know this. We resign ourselves to the only remedy: "avert your eyes."
It's an uglier echo of James Foley's beheading, leaving the media community even more rattled. We watched the cold-hearted killing of journalists by a journalist, rebroadcast and amplified again by other journalists. It took this to finally have a real conversation about the cruelty of the news media and social media architecture, after months of ignoring the voices of black activists who are weary of the nonstop frenzy around videos and photos of killings and bodies.
The seemingly incontrovertible documentation of the murder of black people by the police is central to the resurgence of the civil rights movement—the assumption seems to be that the horror of these images is what will shake America out of its complacency. (Emmett Till's mother famously insisted on an open casket at her son's funeral). And this belief rears its head again with the Parker-Ward killing, the belief that the viewing of traumatic imagery will lead to greater justice.
If sunlight is the best disinfectant, surely the truth of violence will end violence. We want to believe this, but a look at the last year should give anyone pause. The airwaves are dominated by pictures of murder. Yet the long litany of victims' names only grows longer by the day. Death marches on. In October 2014 Sydette Harry wrote, "Why must black death be broadcast and consumed to be believe, and what is it beyond spectacle if it cannot be used to obtain justice?" We creep forward to another October, and her words have lost none of their force or relevance.
The horrors of the world existed long before Twitter, before the internet, before television, before radio, before tabloids, before the printing press, before the written word. I think about this, and it's still not comforting.
Right now, gunshots reverberate through cables, fiber, airwaves. A killer performs a spectacle for an audience captive to its own hunger and disgust. The image of the world through his eyes replicates itself endlessly. Information, regardless of its provenance or moral valence, wants to be free.
Somewhere in my mind, I still think it's a good thing. But for now, I can't shake my revulsion.