Looking back, we may find that the defining mantra of our times was "pics or it didn't happen." The camera phone is ubiquitous, the act of photographing and being photographed now so common as to be unremarkable.
What a godsend that's been, in many ways. Police who abuse citizens are caught in the act, and denounced; people who hurl racist vitriol on the subway are filmed, found and charged. The all-seeing eye of the surveillance state is threatening in the abstract, but a comfort when you're a victim.
The dark side of living in an image-soaked world becomes obvious, though, every time Islamic State posts one of its vile snuff videos, which aim to enlarge its monstrous reputation like a shadow cast on a cave wall. Or when an even sadder and smaller player like Vester Flanagan looks for aggrandizement by murdering two journalists on camera and posting the video online. An aggrieved one-time TV reporter himself, Mr. Flanagan shot and killed his former WDBJ colleagues Alison Parker and Adam Ward while they were filming a live report in Roanoke, Va.
"Photographs shock insofar as they show something novel," Susan Sontag wrote almost 40 years ago in a famous essay, collected in her book On Photography. "Unfortunately, the ante keeps getting raised – partly through the very proliferation of such images of horror." At some point, she speculated, the viewer would become numb to pictures of depravity, her humanity deadened by overexposure.
That hasn't happened yet, despite the fact that we live in a world where unimaginably gruesome photos are available at the click of a button. Consider the case of the on-camera murders in Virginia: there was outrage directed at newspapers like the New York Daily News, which chose to print on its front page three horrifying images of the killer preparing to shoot, and then shooting, Ms. Parker.
People were also furious that the video the killer posted to Facebook and Twitter was briefly available (and thanks to the auto-play feature, the video would have run without the viewer having to start it). They were furious that they were forced to see an event that happens thousands of times every year in the United States, almost always comfortably out of sight. Twitter and Facebook removed his feeds, but the killer's video is still available to view online, apparently.
The Virginia shooting was followed by soul-searching over what has happened to society when an angry criminal seeks fame through social media, and whether a modern obsession with fame in any form had finally reached its nadir. The rage, it seemed, was focused on the killer's camera, but the camera didn't kill anyone. The gun did.
And you can see why people focused on the camera. It's so much easier to condemn an innocuous technology that's in everyone's pockets rather than deal with the intractable, endless problem of that deadly technology in people's purses and glove compartments – the one that kills thousands of Americans every year.
Gabby Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman who became a gun-control advocate after being shot in the head, cut to the chase beautifully on Twitter: "Our country has a gun violence problem. Shootings like these are too common here." Not a celebrity problem, not a social media problem: A gun problem.
Other countries have YouTube, camera phones and deranged individuals who lust for fame. What they don't have is a gun-murder rate like America's. Three days before the Virginia murders, Newsweek posted an article about a new academic study that classifies mass shootings as an "exceptionally American problem."
The murders in Virginia technically would not have met the criterion for mass shootings (four people have to be killed), yet the study is valuable in the way it links gun ownership to gun deaths. According to Newsweek, Adam Lankford of the University of Alabama looked at statistics from 171 countries for mass shootings from 1966 to 2012, and found that America had five times more of those crimes than the next country on the list, the Philippines.
"The strongest statistically significant factor Lankford found was the national firearm ownership rate," Newsweek reported. The U.S. was number one in terms of guns ownership, and number one, by far, on the list of spree killings.
"Some mass shooters succumb to terrible delusions of grandeur, and seek fame and glory through killing," Prof. Lankford told the magazine.
Indeed, before the Virginia killer filmed and posted his carnage online, other murderers sought to aggrandize themselves and their warped beliefs: To cite just two examples, Elliot Rodger, who murdered six people in California last year, posted a screed on YouTube and wrote a misogynistic manifesto that was widely available online. Seung-Hui Cho, who shot 32 people to death at Virginia Polytechnic in 2007, sent his manifesto and video to NBC before his attack (the network broadcast parts of it, causing an uproar). What happened in Virginia wasn't new, but part of a sick tradition – a tradition that continues because it's not much harder to buy a gun than a phone.
So, yes, it's fair to say that technology is to blame for what happened this week. Except that the culprit isn't the technology that shoots, but the one that shoots and kills.