Sometime around noon on Wednesday, over five hours after Vester Flanagan gunned down his colleagues Alison Parker and Adam Ward on live television, and over three hours after he’d posted subjective camera footage of his own ambush, CNN decided to stop showing the video of the murders any longer.
By that point, hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions of people had already seen the incident from both angles, online or on television. But for a number of reasons—including respect for the victims and their families, and the desire not to glamorize Flanagan, or draw attention to his actions—news and social media outlets began removing clips and images of the killings from their broadcasts and websites.
These impulses are understandable. My colleague Jeet Heer defends the decision to take down the videos when he writes that “it makes sense to air video evidence when it can help untangle [a] factual debate. ... But in the case of Wednesday’s killings in Virginia, there is no factual dispute about what happened, so circulating the video is superfluous and cruel."
In a narrow sense this is an important distinction. And it's true that Flanagan’s video footage doesn’t clear up any confusion, or misinformation, about this particular crime, the way the video of Walter Scott’s killing did.
The further you zoom out, though, the harder the distinction becomes to defend. The line between informing the public and macabre gratuitousness is murky, and staying on the right side of it requires great discretion and judgment. But rather than cleanse newscasts and websites of the on-air killing, producers and editors should make it easily available to their viewers and readers, because our society unfortunately needs vivid reminders of the awesome, life-stopping power of firearms.
In an abstract sense, everyone knows guns are deadly, in the same way everyone knows cigarettes are deadly. But our political culture—the conservative faction of it, at least—sanitizes the way guns end life in a way that sets gun violence apart from other public health risks.
For years, in response to political pressure, the Centers for Disease Control have been effectively prohibited from researching gun violence as a public health and safety issue unto itself. Two months ago, in the immediate aftermath of the Emanuel AME church massacre in Charleston, South Carolina, when a powerful House panel torpedoed a piece of legislation that would’ve permitted the Centers for Disease Control to study the root causes of gun violence, House Speaker John Boehner defended this sort of interference.
“The CDC is there to look at diseases that need to be dealt with to protect public health,” Boehner told Todd Zwillich, The Takeaway’s Washington correspondent, at a Capitol press briefing. “I’m sorry, but a gun is not a disease. Guns don’t kill people—people do. And when people use weapons in a horrible way, we should condemn the actions of the individual and not blame the action on some weapon.”
Guns are not microbes, but neither are automobiles, unhealthy foods, slothfulness, or any number of other unhealthy things that the CDC researches, unencumbered. When a bullet pierces human flesh, that body becomes extremely ill right away, no less than when a body flies through a windshield or experiences a severe electric shock. But where government actively regulates cars and construction sites—indeed is applauded for doing so—it simultaneously takes steps to abstract guns from the harm they cause, and silence public officials who refuse to play along. Last year, dozens of senators opposed President Barack Obama’s Surgeon General nominee, Dr. Vivek Murthy, on the grounds that he described gun violence as a public health issue and, in his private capacity, had supported efforts to further regulate firearms.
Murthy was eventually confirmed, but barely, and only because Democrats had disarmed the filibuster as a means of blocking executive branch nominees.
There’s no factual dispute about what happened in this most recent public killing specifically, but in this country, there is a profound, ongoing dispute—and a blinkered discussion—about what guns do, how they do it, and the consequences of their ubiquity. If you take Boehner’s view in this debate, or find yourself conflicted, you’d be well served if you could fire up a news website and watch what happened to Alison Parker.