In Panama City, Florida, a horror show is playing out.
After phone footage of a girl being gang-raped in front of hundreds was discovered by cops, it has been revealed that a string of such incidents had taken place; on different days—maybe—and recorded on different phones. Among the confusion, one thing remains a constant: the profile of the victim. Young, drugged, and only aware of the nightmare that had befallen her after videos of the attack wound up online. That a trend of this nature has been allowed to proliferate is disturbing to the core.
This particular recording was found during an unconnected investigation into an Alabama shooting. The footage shows the victim being sexually assaulted by four men while crowds of Spring Break revelers look on and do nothing—except see fit to capture the attack on film. “This is not the first video we’ve recovered,” Bay County Sheriff Frank McKeithen said of the grim discovery. “It’s not the second video. It’s not the third video. There’s a number of videos we’ve recovered with things similar to this, and I can only imagine how many things we haven’t recovered.”
The girl in question contacted the authorities after she recognized her tattoos in the video of her assault on the news, prompting her to seek action against her perpetrators. She told police that she had been too nervous to file a report initially as she had struggled to remember exact details of what had taken place. McKeithen described the footage as “one of the most disgusting, repulsive, sickening things that I’ve seen...no more than a group of wild animals preying on a carcass as it’s laying in the woods.” He urged residents to “take back our beaches.”
These aren’t attacks merely restricted to beaches, though—in Panama City or elsewhere. These are assaults carried out after school, at parties, in people’s homes. The message is, increasingly, that there is no place where girls will ever be truly safe from the sexual brutality so frequently doled out by the opposite sex and that even once their nightmare appears to be over, scores of kids with camera phones will ensure it never ends.
It is not that more girls and women are being raped—according to the National Crime Victimization survey, the numbers have been in decline over the past four decades—but that with the touch of a button, someone’s personal hell can instantly become public property. The uncomfortable truth is that we have developed an appetite for viral videos truly horrific in nature: Whether it’s an unconscious girl being gang-raped, or a black man being executed by police, or a hostage being burned alive in a cage, there is now some kind of currency to be found in this grotesque cultural click bait.
We tell ourselves that seeing such acts will not desensitize us; that we need to see exactly what happened to better understand the story. But anyone who maintains that repeatedly watching the torture of innocents doesn’t make them a part of the problem is wildly misguided. We cannot make ourselves complicit in these vile acts and then pretend we are different from those who stood by and watched simply because we did so from the comfort of our homes.
One of the most disturbing things about this case is what might have happened had that phone never been seized in an unconnected arrest, in another state, one month later. How much longer would Panama City’s murky truth have slid under the radar? How many more girls would have been encouraged to spend their vacation there without knowing of its dangerous reputation? How many more lives would have been thrown into turmoil by an assault so devastating at the time and again later, after it had been broadcast to the world?
Without these foul attacks, no such videos could be taken—of that there is no question. A point must come, though, where people understand that the correct response to sexual abuse is not to shoot some grotesque home video but to help a person evidently in need. How we have reached a point where that is not abundantly clear is bewildering.
A third suspect has now been arrested: Whether any of the trio will be convicted seems, statistically speaking, unlikely. But we must try, in some small way at least, to remain hopeful for justice. Perhaps there are signs of growth to be found in the fact that this story has made both national and international news; perhaps, with the world paying attention, something might change. Yet it is unsettling, still, that such incidents are taking place. Sexual assault is wrong, and recording and sharing a sexual assault is wrong. We’re just going to have to keep saying it until people start listening.