The Atrocity Exhibition

All too familiar: a disturbed loner wins posthumous recognition by mixing mass murder and mass media. Scott McLemee consults an Italian theorist's reflections on the problem.

September 2, 2015

A few hours after last week's murder of a television reporter and her cameraman in Moneta, Va. -- broadcast live, as it was happening, on a local morning news program -- the killer released his own video. Evidently recorded with a digital camera carried at eye level, it puts the viewer in his place as he walks towards his victims. Once at point-blank range, the gun in his right hand enters the bottom of the screen, moving unsteadily for a few (very long) seconds, taking aim and firing.

The killer made sure this unsettling document went public via social media. Before long, someone had combined it with footage of the shooting as it had aired on television to create a synchronized split-screen record of the event, like a scene in a Brian De Palma movie. I've read about this mash-up but not seen it, and won't, and will refrain from speculating on why anyone considered it a potential worth realizing. (Watching the TV clip and the killer's point-of-view video on the day of the shootings left me feeling morally compromised enough, thank you very much.)

But the whole obscene spectacle echoes a number of points made by Franco Berardi in Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide, published by Verso this spring -- a book I have considered discussing in this column for a couple of months now, while also wanting to avoid it for reasons that the author himself would clearly understand. “Crime, mass murders, suicide -- these are not subjects for a good-natured guy,” he writes. “I’m not a morbid person …. Nevertheless, at the end of summer 2012, I started writing this text almost in a state of rapture, half-consciously, dragged by a sort of excitement and curiosity, and primarily driven by the perception that here, in these dark subjects, there is something peculiar to the spirit of our time.”

The author, who also goes by the nickname Bifo, teaches the social history of communication at the Accademia di belle Arti in Milan and worked with Radio Alice, the now legendary pirate radio station that broadcast in Italy during the mid-1970s. (He gave an interesting interview about Radio Alice in 2010.)

The summer of 2012, when Berardi started writing the new book, was also when James Holmes opened fire on the audience of a late-night screening of a Batman film in Aurora, Colo., killing a dozen people and wounding many more. Holmes entered the theater wearing paramilitary gear (gloves, gas mask, helmet, etc.) and a number of survivors remarked that their first thought was that he was engaged in a publicity stunt or some kind of fan role play. One patron resorted to a cinematic reference to describe the scene after Holmes opened fire: “The guy looked like the Terminator. He didn’t say anything. He was just shooting and shooting and shooting.”

Berardi followed the news, struck by the idea that Holmes “wanted to eliminate the separation between the spectator and the movie; he wanted to be in the movie.” And in that regard Holmes belongs to a subset of the spree killers of recent years -- those who document themselves, leaving behind diaries, written or video, as well as detailed explanations for why they are doing what they do. They don't just kill people at random and then, usually, themselves. They prepare press kits first. (Holmes did not kill himself, but suicide by cop seems at least a very probable outcome of any such incident.)

Other cases Berardi writes about are Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Columbine killers, and Seung-Hui Cho, who massacred 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007. But the phenomenon is not strictly American, and Berardi also discusses Pekka-Eric Auvinen, who killed eight people and himself at his high school in Finland, and Anders Breivik, who massacred 77 people in Norway.

The book might well have included Elliot Rodger, who recorded a smirking rant on video and circulated an interminable autobiographical statement called “My Twisted World” before killing six people and himself in Isla Vista, Calif., last year. And now we have Vester Flanagan, also known as Bryce Williams. His innovation went beyond merely explaining himself (he faxed a lengthy suicide note after the shooting), by giving the vast, anonymous Internet public his point of view on the crime, in as literal a sense as possible.

In calling his book Heroes, Berardi is both indulging an especially dark sense of irony and pointing out something at least as horrifying as the crimes. “Roaming in the blogosphere,” he says, “I read texts of young students who declare to be admirers of [Seung-Hui] Cho because they feel the same hatred for the bullying that they have endured for years.” From a little supplementary roaming, one learns that Cho expressed admiration for the two Columbine killers -- while Vester Flanagan paid his respects to all three in his suicide note.

Only parts of the written and video communications Cho sent to NBC News were made public at the time -- a decision that Berardi guesses was made “because they sounded too much like a frightening manifesto for the frail people of the precarious generation, a call to explosive suicide launched to all the lonely young nerds of the world.” Clearly the effort at containment did not work, and today no gatekeeper can prevent the killer’s statement from circulating in full and immediately.

But overt bullying of the traditional sort -- the harassment and torture, verbal and physical, of one’s peers -- forms only part of the experience of shared misery that Berardi considers. more pervasive are the strains of precarity (a labor market geared to temporary work, without benefits and even the minimal continuity of personnel that makes friendship or sociability possible) and of constantly being drawn into the digital vortex:

“The individual is a smiling, lonely monad who walks in the urban space in tender continuous interaction with the photos, the tweets, the games that emanate from a personal screen. The social relation is transformed into a cabled interconnection whose rules and procedures are hidden in the coded linguistics of the web.” (Think of the like button on Facebook as an example.)

The point here is not, of course, that YouTube and instant messaging have spawned robotic psycho killers programmed to avenge themselves on society by going on suicide missions. Berardi’s larger point is that most of the suffering involved never reaches the point of exploding into violence -- and when it does, the violence tends overwhelmingly to be self-inflicted. In a classic sociological study, Emil Durkheim characterized some forms of suicide as anomic, resulting from feeling disconnected from or unnecessary for social life. But anomie is the new normal. “According to the World Health Organization,” Berardi writes, “suicide is today the second cause of death among young people, after car accidents, which is often a disguised form of suicide.” He also cites a report from WHO that indicates a 60 percent increase in the suicide rate over the past 45 years.

The resentment, narcissism, scapegoat seeking and rage of those who use mass media and mass murder to remind the world that they exist are pathological. But they are also, in Berardi’s analysis, extreme forms of “a paralysis of empathic relations and an increasing fragility of the common ground of interpersonal understanding [that] are becoming common features in the psycho-scape of our time.”

An empirical-minded social scientist would probably dismiss all of this as so much impressionism and speculation. But it reverberated in my head after seeing Vester Flanagan’s video a week ago, and I’m all too certain that won’t be the last time.


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