It was not the kind of place that you expected to see violent images from hell.
This bizarre selfie-style massacre took place in a lovely community tucked into a corner of the Shenandoah Valley up against the Blue Ridge Mountains, off exits I have driven past many times on the way from the land of small towns and cities to the frequently troubled world of Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
It's the kind of place where journalists, when they lose two colleagues, can huddle together and sing "Amazing Grace and recite the Lord's Prayer, as well as the 23rd Psalm.
As the stories rushed in yesterday, I asked the GetReligionistas to help me watch for the religious, moral and cultural angles that were almost certain surface. Acts this horrible tend to be haunted by religion ghosts.
As seems to be the norm, it was a British newspaper that took the blunt route. This massive, rambling early headline from The Daily Mail summed up the key details:
Revenge race murder: Bitter black reporter who gunned down white ex-colleagues live on air and posted the video online blames Charleston shootings and anti-gay harassment in manifesto
The Daily Mail wasn't able, apparently, to squeeze in the part about the gunman saying that God told him to do it.
The key to the reporting was the lengthy, carefully prepared suicide manifesto that Vester L. Flanagan II -- who used the name Bryce Williams in his small-market journalism career -- sent to a higher authority, a national television news network.
In terms of religious and moral issues linked to this crime, some editors appear to have been worried about how much of this material to share with readers. The ghosts show up early and often in the Daily Mail:
Flanagan ... allegedly contacted ABC News after the attack, sending the news network a 23-page document elaborating on his motivations, saying he wanted revenge for the Charleston church shooting and was inspired by infamous mass shooters.
ABC says a man by the name of Bryce Williams first contacted them a few weeks ago, wanting to pitch a story but he wouldn't say what it was about.
In the fax,described as a suicide note to friends and family, Flanagan says he became angered after the Charleston church shooting and that Jehovah made him act. This morning, that same man contacted them again, sending them a fax two hours after the shooting.
It's rare, in these circumstances, for journalists to be able to quote the voice of the person at the heart of the story, the man with the gun. This memo provided a chance to offer that kind of detail, as did a host of other newsroom documents that soon emerged linked to this reporter's work.
'Why did I do it? I put down a deposit for a gun on 6/19/15. The Church shooting in Charleston happened on 6/17/15 …'
'What sent me over the top was the church shooting. And my hollow point bullets have the victims’ initials on them.'
'As for Dylann Roof? You [redacted]! You want a race war [redacted]? BRING IT THEN YOU WHITE …[redacted]!!!”
At the same time, he professes a deep respect for other mass shooters like Virginia Tech gunman Seung-Hui Cho.
'Also, I was influenced by Seung–Hui Cho. That’s my boy right there. He got NEARLY double the amount that Eric Harris and Dylann Klebold got … just sayin’.
He goes on to say that he has faced both racial and sexual discrimination as a black, gay man and that he was just waiting to explode.
'Yes, it will sound like I am angry ... I am. And I have every right to be. But when I leave this Earth, the only emotion I want to feel is peace...'
'The church shooting was the tipping point … but my anger has been building steadily ... I’ve been a human powder keg for a while…just waiting to go BOOM!!!!'
What else is in this note? Time will tell. Maybe.
Maybe more journalists will decide to include the religious and moral angles of the story. Is it relevant, for example, that Flanagan was raised as a Jehovah's Witness? Some news organizations cited that detail, while others did not.
It's hard not to contrast the blunt, detailed coverage in the Daily Mail and, in a more muted form, The New York Times with the strangely vague and careful main story in The Washington Post. Search the Post main-bar for the blunt, telling details and what do you find? Here is a key section:
The killings were part of what appears to have been an elaborate plot carried out by a troubled man who -- after years of professional turmoil and a growing rage he linked to the mass shooting at a Charleston, S.C., church -- was determined to wreak vengeance against co-workers he insisted had wronged him.
Flanagan’s scheme began with the legal purchase of his gun two days after the church massacre; included an escape plan that involved ditching one car and fleeing in a rental; and ended when he fatally shot himself during a police chase 200 miles from the site of Wednesday’s carnage.
Flanagan, who is black, faxed a 22-page letter to ABC News two hours after the killings. He said the church massacre had, after years of discrimination, sent him “over the top.”
Flanagan, who was fired by CBS affiliate WDBJ7 in 2013, also posted attacks on Twitter against the people he had just killed, asserting without evidence that Parker had made racist remarks and that Ward had complained about him to human resources.
That's pretty much it for the Post, in terms of material from the manifesto (unless I missed online work buried elsewhere in the digital edition). Search that main story for terms such as "Jehovah," "bullets" or "gay" and you get nothing.
This was not an issue of European-style journalism vs. American. Compare the key information on Flanagan in the Post story with the equivalent story in the Times. Meanwhile, a CNN piece entitled "Who was Bryce Williams/Vester Flanagan?" took the same mild approach as the Post, avoiding the more controversial parts of the manifesto.
However, the Times readers learned:
Almost two hours after the shootings, a 23-page missive faxed to ABC News headquarters in New York, apparently from Mr. Flanagan, pointed to the June 17 shooting in Charleston, S.C., in which a white supremacist is accused of killing nine black people in a Bible study group. ABC reported that a man claiming to be Bryce Williams had contacted the network several times in recent weeks, saying he had a story for them. He never said what it was.
“Why did I do it?” Mr. Flanagan said in the rambling fax message, which The New York Times obtained from a law enforcement official. “I was already on the edge. The church shooting was a tipping point. The victims’ initials are written on the bullets.”
He echoed the words of the accused Charleston gunman, Dylann Roof, and spoke of a race war. He also said Jehovah had told him to act. He spoke admiringly of the Columbine High School killers and the gunman who carried out the Virginia Tech massacre that left 32 people dead. At one point, he called his document a “Suicide Note for Friends and Family.”
The fax, which also contained allegations that he was repeatedly harassed, bullied and discriminated against for being black and gay, was turned over to law enforcement officials. On Twitter, he made similar charges of racism and harassment, adding that he had filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency.
The Times also offered a highly detailed sidebar built on documents describing earlier conflicts in Flanagan's troubled career. The Post did offer an interesting sidebar, built on social-media reporting, about this crime being the "ultimate selfie."
I was left with a key question: The manifesto claims that the Charleston church killing was the spark that ignited the gunman's rage. Was there more information in Flanagan's writings about that? What else will we learn about the gunman's life and motives, if journalists consider it relevant?