While Haq’s attempt at outreach seemed somewhat spontaneous, and Lanza’s call was not directly linked to his crime, some murderers send material to the media that’s intended to arrive as they carry out their killings, amplifying the terror and explaining their actions. Mark Essex, who killed nine people and wounded 13 in two separate series of attacks on Dec. 31, 1972, and Jan. 7, 1973, sent a letter to WWL-TV, a New Orleans television station, before the Dec. 31 killings giving notice that he planned to attack the city’s police department on New Year’s Eve. Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007, mailed a statement, photos and a series of videos to NBC News; the package arrived after Cho began his attack. Two years later, Jiverly Antares Wong mailed a similar package to a Syracuse, N.Y., television station the day he carried out a shooting at the Binghamton American Civic Association; he had taken English classes at the association, and shot the organization’s receptionists before opening fire in an English as a second language class.
As Merah’s example illustrates, killers who reach out to reporters or send material to media outlets are relying on other people and organizations to broadcast their words. Television stations and newspapers may decide not to publish the material murderers send them because they do not want to compromise law enforcement investigations, because they do not want to give killers platforms, or out of respect for survivors and the families of the dead. So it’s no surprise that as social media has made all sorts of self-publishing easier than ever that killers have begun to distribute their own manifestos and videos of their actions themselves.
In “One of Us,” Asne Seierstad’s book about Anders Behring Breivik’s 2011 bombing of government buildings in Oslo and shootings of 69 people at the summer youth camp for the Norwegian Labor Party, she notes that a critical part of Breivik’s plan was the distribution of a racist, largely plagiarized manifesto that railed against Muslim immigrants. “Once the manifesto had been sent to a thousand email addresses, everything ground to a halt,” Seierstad reports. “Telenor’s spam filter had detected that the upper limit for the number of messages that could be sent per day had been reached.”
Social media has no spam filter and no editors to express qualms about publication. Jared Lee Loughner, who shot a number of people, including then-U.S. representative Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, in 2011 posted about his political beliefs and the definition of terrorism on MySpace and YouTube in the days leading up to his attack. Elliot Rodger, who killed six people in Isla Vista, Calif., in 2014 in an attack apparently motivated by his lack of sexual success, both e-mailed a manifesto to a number of acquaintances and posted a YouTube video announcing his intentions. And Dylann Roof, who is the suspect in the June 17 killing of nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., apparently registered a Web site with the title “The Last Rhodesian” in February and posted a manifesto that explained his motivations.
Flanagan himself worked in media: The reporter and cameraman he killed were his colleagues. His crime exploited the live nature of the broadcast to make sure people would see his crime. Posting the video himself extended the reach of his terror beyond the local market for the broadcast, and beyond anyone who was watching in the original time slot. Flanagan may have known more than other members of his deadly fraternity about how to make himself seen, but he’s hardly alone in the desire to have his awful acts witnessed and acknowledged.
Flanagan won’t be the last, either. As sickening as Monday’s broadcasts were — my startled deskmates and I jumped when one of our colleagues played Flanagan’s video in the newsroom — I’m afraid that worse is yet to come. Can it be long before a killer live-streams his terrible work? Technology, and an accelerating rate of mass killings, seems to make such an outcome inevitable.