On August 26, two journalists from WDBJ-TV in Roanoke, Virginia — reporter Alison Parker and photographer Adam Ward — were shot and killed during a live interview at Virginia’s Smith Mountain Lake. They were murdered by former WDBJ-TV reporter Vester Lee Flanagan, who was angry at being fired from the station two years ago and replaced by Parker.
Before he killed himself, Flanagan sent a manifesto to ABC about the murders. They were retaliation, he said, for the racism and homophobia he experienced as a gay black man, and that he was acting on a directive from Jehovah. (He had tweeted earlier about being a Jehovah’s Witness.)
Years earlier, Flanagan had unsuccessfully sued the station for discrimination, citing a watermelon in the newsroom as an example of racial harassment. “This was not an innocent incident,” he wrote. “The watermelon was placed in a strategic location where it would be visible to newsroom employees.” He also cited statements by Parker about “swinging by” somewhere and being “out in the field” as examples of her supposed racism.
I mention these because I want to clarify, before I go on, that there’s absolutely no indication the station or the victims were guilty of anything other than being victims of a highly disturbed individual.
The woman being interviewed just before the shooting, Vicki Gardner, is a local Chamber of Commerce employee. Recently released from the hospital, she gave her first interview to Fox News last night, speaking with host Greta Van Susteren.
Gardner describes falling to the ground and playing dead after the first shots. It didn’t work — an incredibly cold-blooded Flanagan walked up to her and shot her in the back as she lay curled in a fetal position. It was an unimaginably horrific experience, in which she at first thought the bullet had gone through her spine.
She also had an explanation for why the bullets that killed two lovely young people failed to do her more serious harm:
Thankfully again, I have so many angels around me or something that it didn’t happen that way.
Gardner has found a silver lining in the event. She believes the shooting outcome means that God has a special purpose for her, since He saved her but not the two journalists. She beamed as she told Van Susteren:
My heart just goes out to Alison and Adam. Why save me and take them? But obviously, there’s a purpose. And by golly, I will fulfill it.
I have no desire to be unkind to Gardner, an innocent person who suffered a traumatic event. It cost her a kidney and a section of her colon, leaving her with a terrifying and haunting memory. But it should be said that Ward’s family, and Parker’s fiancé and family, may be a little less pleased at the implication on national TV that their loved ones’ deaths were desired and planned by a Divine Being. This Being could find no further purpose for these young lives on Earth, but He could find one for Gardner, who is more “blessed and highly favored,” as Christians like to say.
I don’t fault Gardner but the arrogance of the Christian ideology itself. Its cultural dominance and psychological power are so great that they can override what I’m sure is a decent, caring person’s normally humble and empathetic instincts. No ideology should be that powerful, which is part of what makes religion so problematic. And no religion should be so culturally dominant that its followers feel no pressure to consider the implications of their public pronouncements on others.
Journalists play a huge role in keeping this unpleasant ideology alive. Gardner could feel perfectly comfortable knowing she’d receive an approving smile from a national TV figure for comments that, to Humanists such as myself, are truly offensive. And that’s not because it’s Fox News; it’s standard operating procedure in the news business to give these beliefs the headline or lede immediately following a tragedy.
After an AirAsia flight crashed in December, ABC News dutifully followed the weird media tradition of interviewing people who were luckier than the victims, publishing a story that specifically focused on their beliefs that the crash was “a special Christmas gift from God” and a “beautiful” plan from Jesus:
It has been more than 48 hours since AirAsia Flight QZ8501 disappeared over the Java Sea, and while the search continues for the missing, there are lucky ones. Twenty-three people who were scheduled to be the plane did not get on.
“Thanks, God,” said Nicole Go, one of the passengers who was scheduled to be on Flight QZ8501. “We were supposed to be on that flight on the 28th. It’s eerie.” Go took a later flight after a wedding she had attended ran late.
… Another family said 10 of them were supposed to fly to Singapore for New Year’s Eve, but they all arrived late at the airport and missed the flight. “My mother can’t stop crying,” Anggi Mahesti said in a text message to ABC News. “This is a special Christmas gift from God that we missed the flight.”
“We are so thankful to our God,” she added.
Chandra Susanto was also supposed to be on the plane. He posted prayers of gratitude on Facebook, saying he was supposed to fly with his wife and their three kids, but they canceled when his father fell ill. “Thank you, Jesus,” Susanto posted. “Your plan is so beautiful. Our family avoided … awful danger.”
American society applauds believers for these sentiments and pressures the rest of us to leave unspoken any questioning of them, however polite. I know some atheists disagree with me on this, but I think we should find gentle, polite ways to express disagreement with such remarks, while being sensitive to delicate situations. I might not say anything to a very elderly aunt, for instance, but I probably would for a sibling, if we’re in private and she wouldn’t be embarrassed before a large group. It could be handled carefully with a brief comment like “I know you don’t want to say that it’s a good divine plan for the victims to die, or that they were less blessed than you, but you may want to know that can sound that way to people with different beliefs than you. Just something to consider.” Then change the subject.
I would go so far as to suggest that journalists not let such comments go without a gentle followup on behalf of those who aren’t there to speak for themselves. Something like, “The families of the less fortunate may take a different view on that, but let’s go on…”
Otherwise we all participate in a social deception that props up Christian privilege, a false appearance of universal approval, that keeps an awful post-tragedy tradition alive. Maybe that’s just me. What do you think? Is there any way of gently discouraging this without being obnoxious?
While you’re pondering… isn’t it amazing that atheists are the ones who Americans consider arrogant?
(Images via YouTube)