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Why Shooters Record Themselves In The Act

A gunman in Virginia murdered two television journalists, Alison Parker and Adam Ward, as they conducted a live on-air interview on Wednesday. The suspect, Vester Lee Flanagan, apparently had a camera.

Flanagan didn't just want to shoot the victims. He wanted to film himself in the act of committing murder.

Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at The Ohio State University, saw the video that Flanagan allegedly posted online that morning.

"When I watched it, it looked like a first-person-shooter video game to me," he said. "The viewer had the same visual perspective as the killer."

"You can see some of the shootings, but then the camera drops and everything turns black," said Bushman, who described the video as amateurish but deeply disturbing.

The wearable camera isn't quite as handy as, say, a drone that flies around you to record. But still, it is fairly user-friendly. And, experts say, as recording devices become higher quality and easier to use, we're going to see them become part of the toolkit for murderers who want attention.

"Just yesterday, nobody knew who Vester Lee Flanagan II even was," said Bushman.

These videos are far more powerful than 140-character tweets about the intent to kill, because, Bushman said, people notice violent actions. "We're hard-wired to pay attention to violence. Our ancient ancestors who ignored violent cues became extinct."

Could This Be A Trend?

Murder on video recorded by the killer has happened before, though the circumstances were different.

In January, the man who killed four people in a kosher supermarket in Paris was wearing a camera. The gunman who killed four people at a Jewish museum in Brussels in May 2014 reportedly had a camera, too. In 2012, witnesses said the shooter in Toulouse, France, who killed three children and a teacher at a Jewish school also wore a camera. And the Islamic State is constantly rolling tape.

Filming to make propaganda may seem different to the viewer from filming to memorialize oneself.

But according to Dr. Jeff Victoroff, professor of clinical neurology and psychiatry at Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California, the difference is not that great.

"Whether you're doing it on behalf of a group or on behalf of yourself, recording instances of aggression is a way to capitalize on a peak life experience — a terrible one — and make more of yourself or of your group," said Victoroff.

He predicts more murderers will strap body cameras to themselves. And as technology advances, we'll get live feeds.

Bushman and Victoroff disagree about the influence of technology on a killer's actions. Bushman says the incentive to murder to gain attention is strengthened if the act can be posted online.

Victoroff says wearable cameras just give those already inclined to kill a chance to show off "by immortalizing their aggressive acts."

The Twitter and Facebook accounts of the alleged Virginia gunman were taken down on Wednesday.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Aarti Shahani is a correspondent for NPR. Based in Silicon Valley, she covers the biggest companies on earth. She is also an author. Her first book, Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares (out Oct. 1, 2019), is about the extreme ups and downs her family encountered as immigrants in the U.S. Before journalism, Shahani was a community organizer in her native New York City, helping prisoners and families facing deportation. Even if it looks like she keeps changing careers, she's always doing the same thing: telling stories that matter.
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