Hours after a gunman killed two journalists and wounded an interviewee during a live news broadcast Wednesday morning, Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson asked a question that may have also been on the minds of many of her viewers: If the alleged shooter was black and his victims were white, shouldn't this be labeled a racist hate crime?
The answer, security expert Paul Viollis told her, is not that simple. The suspected gunman, 41-year-old Vester Lee Flanagan, on Wednesday sent a manifesto to ABC News, saying his "tipping point" was the June shooting of nine congregants at a historic black church in Charleston. In that case, the white gunman explicitly revealed his racist motivations and desire to kill black people in a brutal act of bigotry. But Viollis suggested that the available information on Flanagan is not enough to determine that the on-camera attack was racially motivated.
“This is quintessential workplace violence, from the behavioral profile of the individual to the actions that he displayed, from the manifesto to the time he was terminated in 2013,” he said.
Flanagan was fired in 2013 from news station WDBJ, the CBS affiliate in Roanoke, Virginia, where reporter Alison Parker, 24, and cameraman Adam Ward, 27, also worked. Parker and Ward were both killed in the shooting Wednesday, while a third victim, 61-year-old Vicki Gardner, who was being interviewed on air, is in stable condition.
Memos issued by Flanagan's bosses prior to his termination and since obtained by The Guardian paint a picture of a problem employee who was unpredictable and at times aggressive. Flanagan himself admitted in the document sent to ABC News that he was a "human powder keg ... just waiting to go BOOM." He had also filed lawsuits against WDBJ and at least one other prior employer, alleging racial discrimination and other mistreatment. According to The Guardian, police were called to escort Flanagan out of the WDBJ offices after he was fired.
But Carlson returned focus to the fact that Flanagan "talked about race a lot" in his manifesto.
“He put the initials of the Charleston church shooting victims on the bullets that he used today, he praised the Virginia Tech mass killer, Columbine High School killers, says he was being attacked for being a gay black man,” she said. “He shot three white people today. Why is that not a hate crime?”
Viollis again pointed to a more complex psychology that he said often serves as a backing for these outbursts of violence.
“Because of the fact that the workplace violence offender is clearly delusional,” he explained. “They make up their own sense of reality, and they struggle with their sense of identity. So they don’t like who they are, they make up something that will envision them as a victim, as the quintessential victim. It’s the finger-pointing.”
Viollis continued, “Hate crime is something where he clearly was motivated by sense of race, color or creed.”
Carlson again said the alleged shooter's manifesto was clear evidence of such a motivation, but Viollis theorized that the "tipping point" Flanagan spoke of was rather the moment he decided it was time to engage in shocking, "attention-seeking" behavior.
“He saw the attention that was received from that shooter all over the country, and that particular shooter was glorified on the news in his eyes," Viollis said. "That’s why he picked this time of the day to shoot these two people.”