Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Sunday, December 4, 2016

We watched, so the Virginia shooter got just what he wanted.

We were horrified, sickened, stricken, but still we watched as a deranged gunman fired several shots and murdered two young journalists on live television, wounding their interview subject as well.

Alison Parker, 24, and her cameraman, Adam Ward, 27, were conducting a news report for their Roanoke, Virginia, TV station, interviewing Vicki Gardner, a local chamber of commerce official. It seemed a routine story, a staple of small-city local news broadcasts.

But its ending was anything but routine: A disgruntled former employee of the station came up behind them, paused a few seconds, and then opened fire. (I refuse to use the shooter’s name; he’s had more than enough publicity.)

We watched, so the gunman was gratified.

Psychologists tell us that our violent video age will breed more like him, more angry narcissists hungry for notoriety, for attention, for, well, viewers. In a carefully planned attack, he apparently wore a body camera to capture his savagery; he then uploaded the video to his social media accounts.

Responsible news editors refused to show the most explicit footage, and Facebook and Twitter responded quickly to shut the shooter down.

But the video undoubtedly lives on in the Internet’s murky underworld. This is the modern version of the Roman Colosseum, a 21st-century update of public executions.

And, yet, it was uniquely American, the sort of horror show for which we have developed a worldwide reputation. While social media are in use everywhere — jihadists have used them to publicize their own gruesome executions — only in the United States do we allow madmen easy access to firearms. We have created the perfect conditions for turning places of work, of learning, of worship into shooting galleries, targets for the mentally unstable, the angry and unhinged.

According to a recent study, there are more public mass shootings in the United States than in any other country in the world. (The study, conducted by University of Alabama criminologist Adam Lankford, counts only incidents in which four or more people are killed and excludes gang killings and domestic, or family, episodes. The Virginia shooting, horrific though it was, would not have been counted.)

Between 1966 and 2012, there were 90 mass shootings in the United States. That’s nearly a third of the 292 mass shootings around the world, in a country with only 5 percent of the global population. America’s high rate of gun ownership “appears connected to its high percentage of mass shootings,” Lankford wrote.

Parker’s father, Andy Parker, told CNN that he would fight for stronger firearms regulations, denouncing as “cowards” those politicians who kowtow before the gun lobby. “Look, I’m for the Second Amendment, but there has to be a way to force politicians who are cowards and in the pocket of the NRA to come to grips and have sensible laws so that crazy people can’t get guns,” he said.

He’s right, of course. I admire not only his willingness to speak out, but also his ability to string rational sentences together, given what he and his family are going through.

Still, his crusade is unlikely to bear fruit. He can join the countless other grieving families before him — there are enough to populate a small city — who tried to give meaning to their loss by fighting for sensible firearms regulations. Even the families of the Sandy Hook children — 20 kids and seven adults were killed in an elementary school in Connecticut in 2012 — were unable to budge a Congress in thrall to the National Rifle Association.

The cowardice of Congress was not assuaged by public opinion polls, which show overwhelming support for measures such as broader background checks on gun buyers. But the gun lobby threatens to defeat any person who suggests that individuals shouldn’t have their own shoulder-fired rocket launchers, and, apparently, politicians value livelihood over principle.

So there will be more bloodshed. There will be more angry and alienated young men who find it easy to grab a gun and commit a monstrous crime. And given the Virginia shooter’s creative savagery, there will be more video footage of helpless victims.

We’ll be watching.

(Cynthia Tucker won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at [email protected])

Photo: A tweet apparently from the shooter of WDBJ7 reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward appears to show the shooting during a live broadcast from Bridgewater Plaza, August 26, 2015. Handout via Twitter