WASHINGTON (CNS) — If the Easter Sunday “Facebook murder” has people shaking their head and declaring that America has become a nation of attention-demanding children, they’re wrong.
It has been that way for quite some time already.
Murder has always been wrong; one of the Ten Commandments is “Thou shalt not kill.” Sadly, it’s never stopped anyone from killing. We just have an exhibitionist streak.
Think back to the 1990s, when a homeless man in Florida was set afire and burned by three old-enough-to-know-better teenagers because they had seen it in a movie on TV and thought they’d try it themselves. This kind of copycat crime has become all too familiar. Not every copycat crime is based on something somebody saw on TV, but it takes on a different kind of rancid taint when police and the public make the connection.
It’s not that far of a leap when the perpetrators aren’t just “the quiet guy next door who always kept to himself” but instead are terrorists, knowing their acts would win a national and even worldwide audience. The 9/11 attackers didn’t need to set up cameras to document their acts. Network cameras took care of that for them, and replayed the carnage repeatedly that day and well into the night, as if the nation didn’t already have enough trauma to deal with. One drama series was filming near the World Trade Center and happened to film each jetliner that slammed into the towers.
Islamic State took videos of its execution of kidnapped hostages, and those videos, save for the grisly climax, made their way to news networks worldwide.
Closer to home, the on-camera murder of a TV reporter and a cameraman in Virginia, captured by the slain cameraman, was shown on CNN within hours of the event. “This is the only time this hour we’re going to show it to you,” intoned Carol Costello, working the anchor desk that morning. It was so unsettling that CNN stopped showing it. The twist is that the camera caught a glimpse of the shooter: Vester Flanagan, ironically, a former anchor and on-air reporter for the same TV station. With the cops in pursuit, Flanagan took his own life before he could be arrested, much the same as our Facebook shooter, Steve Stephens.
Even the Columbine High School mass killers in Colorado, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, made a series of videos explaining and justifying the murders they were about to undertake. The world never got to see them as the teens had intended, but the motive for self-glorification was intact.
It’s a vexing, perplexing chain of events. It used to be said that freedom of the press belonged only to those who could afford one. Today, that freedom is within nearly everyone’s grasp. All they have to do is reach into their pocket, pull out a smartphone to publish on Twitter or blogging sites, take photos to post on Facebook and shoot video to be shown on YouTube — just to mention a few social media platforms.
Facebook can police the Facebook Live site it launched last year and remove videos it deems offensive, but that only attacks the symptom, according to Sister Rose Pacatte, a Daughter of St. Paul with an extensive background in media.
“They can’t prevent it, as long as you do video. The United Airlines kerfuffle (where passengers’ cellphones recorded another passenger being forcibly evicted from his seat), I didn’t mind that. I think that was a good thing,” she said.
“But we’re our own best guides to what we put up there and what we don’t put up there, and if we don’t have human formation, let along Christian or spiritual formation, it doesn’t matter what they do … They’re not connected anymore,” Sister Pacatte said. “If you don’t really believe in anything, except money, what difference does it make what you do? Which is really a huge essential problem. There’s no easy answer.”
Pattison is media editor for Catholic News Service.