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Why I Had to Watch the Videos of the WDBJ Shooting

And why one moment in the killer's footage stands out as terribly important.

It was a Glock. The Austrian pistol maker’s characteristically blocky slide has been imitated by plenty of other gun companies, but its sights are unmistakable: The front bead on the business end, the blocky, white “U” on the rear end. Once wrongly vilified as metal-detector-proof, futuristic slaying tools, now praised as a savior of police agencies and self-defenders, Gaston Glock’s pistols constitute one swelling immigrant population America has always welcomed. And this morning, you could watch one tear into three unwitting human targets.

I understand wishing not to see video of people having their lives violently stolen. But on Wednesday morning, after an angry ex-WDBJ reporter shot journalist Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward outside Roanoke, Virginia, killing them and maiming their interviewee on live TV, I watched the station’s footage. When the killer uploaded a video of the incident from his perspective to social media, I watched that, too, even as others in the media understandably attempted to have the video taken down. (Stills can be seen here and here.)

I sympathize with the view that says that to watch the shooter’s footage is to abet his fantasies of infamy. And I absolutely sympathize with the loved ones and colleagues of Parker and Ward and local chamber of commerce boss Vicki Gardner, whom the journalists were there to interview for a feel-good story on the 50th anniversary of a popular reservoir ringed by the Blue Ridge Mountains. They should not have this footage replaying in their minds, clawing itself a place amid happy memories. But for the rest of us, a case can be made for sitting through the videos — and, yes, especially the second, even more awful one. Gun-lovers, gun-haters, those of us in between — maybe we should not be so quick to look away from this rare time when the gun violence that we all condemn can be so directly observed. Maybe we even had an obligation to watch, just once, and then do our own mental recording.

One moment in the shooter’s footage in particular sticks out as terribly important. It is not the moment when he finally opens fire. It is the long seconds that lead up to it. In the video, the killer approaches, reaches his three victims, pauses, raises the Glock into the frame. He levels the gun at them, point-blank, and waits a few more beats. Then he appears to inch even closer and briefly thrusts the gun farther forward. Like he wants to be noticed, there, with his gun. Like it was as important to be seen as to be killing.

Parker and Ward, his back to the killer, do not notice. They are too busy doing their jobs, filming their stand-up. Perhaps they are aware of a figure shuffling into their periphery, something that anyone who does live TV gets used to. But the work at hand is their focus.

So for this long moment, the shooter is just background, a man with an unnoticed gun. It reminded me of a moment in The Silence of the Lambs: mid-climax, the psychopath, wearing night-vision goggles, beholds Jodie Foster helpless in the dark, brandishes his weapon, relishing his potency.

I thought, too, of a line from Santa Barbara mass-killer Elliot Rodger’s long-winded manifesto, on buying the first of the guns he’d use to murder or wound 20 people: “After I picked up the handgun, I brought it back to my room and felt a new sense of power,” he wrote. “I was now armed. Who’s the alpha male now, bitches?”

There can be no crazier feeling than that, and no more depraved act than the one this killer took in his next moments, as he proceeded to pull the trigger, squeezing off eight or nine rounds.

But here in this country, such thoughts, such actions, such moments — they are not abnormal. They are in fact entirely commonplace. And they are a product of what guns have become in America: not sometimes-tools, not peacemakers, but magical signifiers to “good” guys and “bad” alike. There are gun critics to whom the weapon is inherently malevolent and worthy of banning outright, capable only of murder and never of sport, of discipline, of legitimate defense. There are gun owners to whom it is a talisman, a bringer of protective mojo that must always be available privately and without fetters: It made America; it won the West; it preserves civilization; it defeats evil. To both sides, the firearm is power incarnate.

Of course we have to reconsider how and when we as a society allow access to guns. We also need to strive as a culture to combat the idea that you can write your story’s ending, your way, with violence. In Charleston, in Santa Barbara, in Newtown, and now in Roanoke, violent men are trying to be the heroes in their own real-life first-person shoot-’em-ups. Other citizens are trying to be the heroes that will shoot the killers.

So many twisted narratives, all competing for airtime. The murderers have crafted their manifestos, taking pains to rationalize their brutality and celebrate the weapons that empowered them. But in the Roanoke video, we have a new and terrible kind of chronicle. One hopes, against all reason and evidence, that it will be the last.

Update: This story initially identified Glock as a German company. We’ve corrected the error — Glock Ges.m.b.H was founded in Austria and is headquartered there.

[Photo: WDBJ via youtube.com]