The Motivations Behind the WDBJ On-Air Shooting: When Does Anger Turn to Violence?

Jenna Birch

Journalists Alison Parker and Adam Ward on assignment. The two were killed live on air earlier this week. (Photo: WDJB-TV/AP Photo)

On Tuesday, Aug. 26, at 6:45 a.m., reporter Alison Parker and photojournalist Adam Ward were in the middle of a lakeside interview for Virginia’s WDBJ-TV.

The morning was quiet. Cameras were rolling. All attention was turned toward the job. And no one noticed as ex-WDBJ employee Vester Lee Flanagan II crept up to the scene before he shot his former colleagues during the live broadcast. Parker, 24, and Ward, 27, were killed. The interviewee, Vicki Gardner, was also shot but is expected to recover.

Flanagan fled the scene as authorities followed after him. At 8:26 a.m., a 26-page fax landed in the machine at ABC News. It was a suicide note and a manifesto from Flanagan, known professionally as Bryce Williams.

The document detailed a man descending further and further into fits of rage and madness. He wrote about discrimination in the workplace for his race and sexual orientation, by both white women and black men. He expressed admiration for the mass-shooters of Columbine and Virginia Tech. He admitted to being “all f***ed- up in the head.”

Flanagan said he put a deposit down on a gun on June 19, two days after 21-year-old Dylann Roof opened fire at a church meeting in Charleston, S.C. He writes, “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!!!!”

At around 11:30 a.m., police identified a vehicle they believed to be Flanagan’s. He refused to pull over for a trooper and tried to flee. He eventually crashed into an embankment. Flanagan ended his life with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

When does anger turn to violence?

Where did Flanagan’s aggression come from, and why was it directed at his former colleagues? According to Art Markman, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, anger is an emotion that carries a lot of energy with it — something psychologists refer to as “arousal.” We often think of angry people as explosive or “on the edge” for this very reason.

“That energy has to go somewhere, and people find different ways to deal with that energy,” Markman tells Yahoo Health. “Some channel it into productive action, some get aggressive.”

Obviously, we all experience the sting of rage and frustration from time to time. However, Markman says there’s a big difference between someone who gets angry and someone who is angry — constantly frustrated, anxious, and venomous.  

“These individuals have created a cycle of behaviors that maintain their angry state,” he explains. “Often, they ruminate. They get into a cycle of thoughts that focus them on the object of their anxiety and anger, and they maintain that arousal level.”

For Flanagan, that cycle may have centered on his work life, which was seemingly filled with tension. He had a reputation for being difficult to work with, according to a BBC report, and had lodged complaints against colleagues many times in the past.

Vester Lee Flanagan II, known professionally as Bryce Williams. (Photo: WDJB-TV/AP Photo)

Thomas Harpley, a clinical psychologist from San Diego who has not treated Flanagan and cannot comment on the specifics of the case, explains that our world is set up to breed chronic stress and anxiety, especially as it relates to work — although we are not biologically set up to handle it.

“We are neurologically wired for fight or flight or short-term stress,” he tells Yahoo Health. “We either run from the saber-toothed tiger and get away or we have to fight it — either way, the stressor is resolved quickly. But today, we can have stress that begins before we get to work, throughout our workday, and then in rush-hour traffic at night, for at least five days a week, week after week, month after month.”

Ongoing stress and ruminating on angry thoughts, without a proper outlet, has the potential to escalate toward violence. “Those aggressive acts may start with long written tracts about the problems with the world and ways that it could be fixed,” Markman says, something Flanagan participated in on Twitter, Facebook, and within his 23-page manifesto. “Ultimately, that could, in a small number of cases, lead to violent outbursts like the one we saw [on Tuesday].”

It is also not uncommon to see violence directed at colleagues, current or former. “People are generally aggressive toward people they know; random acts against strangers are more rare,” says Markman. “The two most common sources of relationships are home and work. So it is no surprise that we see both domestic violence and cases of workplace aggression.”

Everyone feels angry — but how do we express it?

Anger and aggression don’t necessarily go hand in hand. But as humans in Western society, most of us aren’t comfortable with feelings of discontent — and we certainly don’t know what to do with them or how to channel them. “Most of us are taught as children that anger is wrong to feel, let alone express,” Harpley says, “when in fact, emotions are not good or bad, right or wrong. They simply are.”

Some emotions are uncomfortable, like sadness, fear, anxiety, or frustration — and they demand an appropriate outlet, says Markman, or they will eventually find one on their own.

Ignoring a powerful emotion like anger never lasts; the remnants will always manifest somewhere. “Anger is a secondary emotion, fueled by some form of hurt,” Harpley explains, a natural byproduct of the human experience. “When we suppress these feelings, it either takes a toll internally with issues like headaches, gastrointestinal problems, and high blood pressure, or it’s expressed externally with emotional or behavioural dyscontrol.” (Dyscontrol is the inability to regulate our feelings appropriately, leading to disturbing or abnormal behaviours.)

There’s been a rise in highly publicized shootings and other incidents of violent behavior, something Harpley calls “role-modeling” for would-be aggressors. As a result, he says, many angry people now believe violence is a viable option for dealing with their emotional response.

“I have had patients tell me they see murder as among their choices in responding to a stressful situation,” Harpley says. “But emotional or behavioural dyscontrol is not necessary. People need to know that there are healthier ways to respond to stress.”

Harpley says prayer, exercise, journaling thoughts and feelings, talking with clergy or a close friend, seeking a mental health professional, and psychiatric medications should all be considered options for dealing with anger.

“A psychologist encountering someone ruminating on angry thoughts would want to work with this person to help him or her to break the cycle of thoughts that are contributing to the anxiety or anger,” Markman says.

And if a job is leading to daily extreme, unresolved stress, the advice is straightforward: “Simply leave it,” says Harpley.

Reaching a breaking point

Flanagan did not leave his job at WDBJ but was terminated. Despite his bosses’ urging, it does not appear he sought mental help for dealing with his constant frustration, the unfounded perceived slights by co-workers over many years in journalism, and aggressive tendencies.

According to ABC, Flanagan’s lengthy letter says he had stopped looking for a job after his most recent termination. David B. Adams, a board-certified clinical psychologist at Atlanta Medical Psychology who specializes in workplace issues and workplace violence, says all signs show Flanagan had likely reached the end of his rope.

In some instances of violent behavior, circumstances may meet cultural influence. Adams tells Yahoo Health that the odds of aggression rise “when a society has access to dramatic cases of violence” — like Charleston, Columbine, and Virginia Tech — “and finds in those examples both a means and a justification for aggressive action.” Flanagan references all three of these shootings as either inspiration or motivation for his own crime in the manifesto he sent to ABC News.

By taking his own life, Adams says, Flanagan eliminated the repercussions he would have faced. “We moderate our basic violent tendencies to avoid the consequences of our actions,” Adams says. “There is an increasing number of cases in which the consequences are eliminated by suicide.” Taking his own life may have given Flanagan a sense of control in a situation in which he felt he had none.

Adams says the conversation surrounding these murders will likely come back to mental illness and firearms, as it has in the past. “An individual in pain, who felt he had no alternatives,” versus “having the legal access to a means of inflicting harm,” Adams explains.

n reality, the breaking point where anger led to violence was likely a blend of many factors. “The man had apparently reached the point when successive job problems, largely of his own making, could no longer enable him a functional life and career,” says Adams.

“When he reached the point where his own life mattered little, he was able to make a final and vicious act define his life,” Adams continues. “Likely, in his world, it finally gave him the notoriety that eluded him.”

The problem of prevention

“Could the perpetrator have been stopped?” This question will be asked following every national tragedy.

As noted by Adams, we will continue to discuss the effects gun control and better treatment options for the mentally ill might have on a global scale. Unfortunately, it is incredibly hard to predict when anger might lead to violence on a case-by-case basis, even though there is often so much “evidence” found in the aftermath.

In hindsight, the clues seem obvious. For instance, social media played a huge role in the attack and its subsequent circulation: Flanagan posted bizarre content to social media in the days before he attacked the two young journalists, including what appear to be “test” videos in advance of the final film he posted of the shooting. Even coupled with his history of angry behavior, though, nothing suggested he would act out.

While researchers have pinpointed some factors that increase the likelihood of violence, it’s only a successful tactic in identifying large groups at risk of aggression, not individuals.

In a day and age where everything is monitored online, we will see more of the trails criminals blaze on social media leading up to their violent episodes. “If you think about a flow chart that leads to violent outbursts, long-term anger, and anxiety, [all this] can lead people to write extensively about their complaints and even, these days, to post those complaints to social media,” Markman says. “But only a fraction of those people who are angry enough to write something expressing dissatisfaction, even the desire for revenge or violence, go on to commit violent acts.”

Markman says that while a psychologist might help an individual in a clinical setting, it is less clear how law enforcement can help prevent violence. There aren’t enough resources to do an extensive investigation of every angry person or every social-media rant. There is simply too much noise to zero in on who might be a potential danger.

“Anger is a risk factor,” Markman says, “but anger and anxiety alone do not predict that someone will engage in an act of deliberate violence.”

It’s a devastating problem to which we’re desperately seeking an answer, especially for victims like the newly engaged WDBJ photographer Ward and reporter Parker, who had just celebrated her 24th birthday.