Atrocity Exhibition

It’s likely that, at the time of the horrific acts of violence in Santa Barbara, it was someone’s first instinct to go through the digital breadcrumb trail left by the murderer and save every last item. From the deluded, misogynistic ramblings on YouTube, to the posting history on Reddit and elsewhere, to the near-incoherent “manifesto,” every grisly detail would have to be captured.

I’m conflicted by this practice. On one hand, it is potentially motivated by that morbid attraction, that contradictory push and pull we feel when we encounter other macabre subjects — human sacrifice, or Unit 731. On the other, it can be an invaluable service, like that of a crime scene photographer. For once the blood is cleared away, the bullet holes probed and duly spackled, the caution tape balled up and bagged, all is as it once was — like nothing ever happened.

And of course, that’s not true. Something did happen. Lives were lost, diminished, changed forever, and unlike a hundred, 50, or even 20 years ago, there is more than an absence to show that something was taken away. As John eloquently pointed out shortly after the Isla Vista shooting, the perpetrator weaves a web of context, at the center of which is the final crime: between blog posts, forum threads, video logs, and the gauzy layer of metadata lying lightly over all of it, there’s enough circumstantial evidence to occupy a team of lawyers — or onlookers — for months or years.

So far fact. But the question is not whether this data exists. The question is what should we do with it?

Admittedly it is not a question of equal gravity to that of why such and such a person is capable of such and such an act. But I think it’s an important one to answer together, as a society to which the Internet has become integral.

What should we do, for example, with something like the Isla Vista murderer’s video blogs? Of course, YouTube simply took them down, but that may simply be a matter of policy, and at any rate our friend the online crime photographer will have done his work already. If people want to watch them, they can.

We can continue to fill in the bullet holes on the Internet, but the truth is this evidence is ineffaceable. Are we sure we’re doing the right thing when we clear away the blood?

I think it’s arguable that we should in fact be doing the opposite: preserving this data. Not furtively, in torrents and private subreddits, but officially and with the solemnity and context it deserves. We’re entering an era when everything we do, from our lunches to our conspiracies to commit murder are on the record. It is a pitiless mirror being held up to humanity; what does it say if we refuse to look ourselves in the eye?

Why not a place where the information is safely and comprehensively stored, court findings stated, diagnoses and commentary summarized, charities listed, and so on? It would be a place where people could see the story of this person’s sickness and offenses under the cold light of posterity rather than the heat of sensation. A mausoleum for heinous crimes is better than a pyre; it’s hard to learn from ashes.

The objections, of course, are numerous: we shouldn’t give these people a pedestal; similarly-minded people will use it as a resource; it’s better to forget such things; it’s disrespectful to the victims and their families. There is some truth to these, but like other valid objections, they will be rendered moot in time, if they are not already.

Everyone with access to the web, after all, has unfettered access to the most brutal, the most horrific, and the most explicit material ever created. That’s not going to change. And as bad as the world is, I don’t think it’s because people have pornography or snuff movies on demand.

So when we have an opportunity like this, to be shown in shocking detail as a fellow man, a human like ourselves, inches down a path of madness and self destruction, raising questions the whole way about how our society functions and doesn’t function, how little succor we as an ostensibly charitable and loving culture really offer, how deep our flaws and prejudices run, and worst of all, how human this monster really was — to throw away this opportunity to be honest with ourselves for once in history is a mistake we will live to regret, and die under the ignominy of lives unexamined.

They say that those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it. I would add that those who refuse to acknowledge evil are doomed to permit it.