Carole Norris Greene

Carole Norris Greene

The question that haunts the aftermath of tragedies resulting in death and heartbreak is often the same: Could any of us have seen it coming and stopped it?

The news was indeed horrific the morning of Aug. 26 when two Roanoke, Virginia, journalists in their 20s with promising careers and marriages to look forward to were gunned down during a live broadcast.

Worse still was the shocking fact that the gunman was a former colleague at WDBJ-TV who not only videotaped the murders and the wounding of a woman being interviewed but posted the video on social media before ending his own life later that day as state troopers closed in on him.

The gunman, identified as Vester Lee Flanagan, 41, was known as Bryce Williams when he was a reporter at WDBJ. He was fired more than two years ago for disruptive conduct.

In a 23-page “Suicide Note for Friends and Family” faxed to ABC News in New York nearly two hours after the incident, Flanagan claimed that he was the victim of racism at WDBJ and harassment because he was a gay black man.

“I’ve been a human powder keg for a while … just waiting to go BOOM,” he wrote.

It was bizarre how Flanagan expressed admiration for the murderers of students at Columbine High School in Colorado and at Virginia Tech. He also pointed to the mass shootings at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June as the catalyst for his purchasing of the gun he later used to murder reporter Alison Parker, 24, and cameraman Adam Ward, 27.

Flanagan may have seen himself as a victim of racism and sexual harassment, but none of his claims justify his careful planning and deliberate choice to respond to his perceived injustices with murderous hatred.

It is noteworthy to me that Flanagan addressed his suicide note to friends first and then to family.

Was he not close to his family? Or were members simply too far away in his hometown of Oakland, California, where he and two sisters reportedly grew up in a strict but very outgoing Jehovah’s Witnesses household?

The intervention of attentive family members and even close friends can be a key element in diffusing crises. These folks are usually the first to sense if something isn’t quite right with one of their own. Better than any profiler who sees clearly in retrospect, they can see through faked smiles and cut to the chase of what is really going on with one another.

Flanagan’s family responded to the shootings by getting a representative to convey their grief, condolences and prayers for the victims’ loved ones and colleagues.

It’s too late for anyone to rewrite a script in Roanoke that would have bypassed death and shattered lives.

But it’s not too late for the rest of us to heed this awful wake-up call to make it very clear to those who are family to us that we care about them and are available to listen — truly listen — if they ever need to talk about anything weighing on their minds.

Flanagan confessed to a friend after the shootings that he had just done “something stupid.”

Perhaps if he had made contact before and not after the incident, this development could have been minus its cruel ending.


Greene was an associate editor at Catholic News Service for nearly 22 years.