“One of the few good things about modern times: If you die horribly on television, you will not have died in vain. You will have entertained us”
— Kurt Vonnegut
Five years after Brandon Vedas drank himself to death in a chat room, a Florida teenager by the name of Abraham Biggs ingested a prodigious quantity of opiates and benzodiazepines on camera, went to bed, and died. Abraham suffered from bipolar disorder: he took the part of his meds that would actually kill him.
Biggs announced his plans to kill himself over a Web site for bodybuilders, authorities said. But some users told investigators they did not take him seriously because he had threatened suicide on the site before.
Some members of his virtual audience encouraged him to do it, others tried to talk him out of it, and some discussed whether he was taking a dose big enough to kill himself, said Wendy Crane, an investigator with the Broward County medical examiner’s office.
This won’t be a “[[Bowling for Columbine]]” article that tries to blame the Internet for what happened because suicide is an issue quite independent of networks. That this one took place via a webcam sets the stage: it does not explain the why of it. In fact, there’s very little that can be deduced about Bigg’s death other than from the fact that he suffered from bipolar disorder. We learn, I think, a lot more about the event by evaluating how different people interacted or failed to interact with Biggs and with one another. The division I shall use here was suggested, in part, by the Broward County medical examiner: There’s the people who tried to talk him out of it and called the police; followed by Biggs’s family; then the local police; the scoundrels who egged him on (a disturbing parallel to the Vedas case); and finally the ones who sat by disinterestedly discussing whether Biggs had taken enough opiates and benzos to kill himself. This will be, in part, an investigation of Evil and, by reflection, of Good.
The people who tried to talk Biggs out of it and the ones who called the Broward County police in an attempt to save his life are clearly the heroes of this hour. One man called all the way from India to try to hector local law enforcement into paying Biggs a visit. My hat is off to them. If songs are to be sung about this, let’s make sure they are mentioned.
At first glance, some might question why the Biggs family was not watching Abraham more closely. Unlike schizophrenia, bipolar disorder is an episodic disorder. This means that you are not always in the disease. Even if untreated, you can go for long periods of time without showing any symptoms. Plenty of people lived long, productive lives with the disorder. Suicides often strike unexpectedly because an episode can come together faster than a tornado over the plains of Kansas and with less warning. Plenty of my friends have seen me suddenly tip over and, likewise, I have received calls from people who were serene in the morning, but desperate and turbulent in the evening.
Families can’t be called upon to be forever vigilant about suicide attempts because that demand can kill them with gloom ((When I wrote my article about Brandon Vedas five years ago, I received email from Rick Vedas thanking me for my understanding. Brandon’s death had hit them completely out of the blue and they wanted to do something to help others. But what? One thing they were resolved on: not to demand that lawmakers clamp down on the Internet. Notably they did not take legal action against the caitiffs who urged him on either.)) . So here, I offer my condolences to the Biggs family and affirm to them that it was hard to see this coming, even with knowledge of Abraham’s condition. They, too, are victims — survivors of an illness in which grandiosity and sudden violence against the self are common. My guess is that Abraham made a cry for help — somehow he did not feel that his condition was being addressed well enough. He made it in a place invisible to his family. And the tragedy is that many of those who heard it and could have done something either did nothing or contributed to Abraham’s demise.
I blame, first, the police who had twelve hours of warning by friends of Biggs before they broke down the door and found the teenager dead in his bed. There is simply no excuse for their writing off the phonecalls as just an “Internet prank”. The first response team deserves a severe reprimand here.
The apathy of the police is counterpoised to the meanness of those in the audience who encouraged Biggs to off himself. These had plenty of warning that he was serious. Feral sociopathy explains some of these: they just get a thrill from being able to propel someone towards death. Some years ago, I was in a chat room discussing offing myself. One fellow said “When you stick the gun into your mouth, angle it upwards slightly so that it blows out your brains.” What can be said of that person? Too often his kind are not reproofed in web circles. I doubt that if I had had a gun handy that he would have felt the least remorse.
Others might have had no clue what they were doing. Having seen other “performance art” and fictionalized murder, they might well have expected to see Biggs rise again.
The bulk, I think, knew what they were doing but were caught up in a perverse aspect of American culture that has plagued us at least since the beginnings of the 20th century. This has been described by the anthropologist [[Edward Sapir]] as the “spurious culture” wherein we seek Bigger, Better, Faster without that pursuit ever really integrating us as a society. Earlier in this article I said that I did not think that this suicide was in any way due to the Net, but I think it is tied to the same boosterism that leads people to hunger for each new gadget or social web site that appears. This element among the audience of Biggs’s suicide was simply looking for something they had not seen before, for the previously unattained entertainment. For them, Biggs’s death was nothing more than a gizmo that whirred and buzzed spectacularly. Or not.
Here the notion of the “[[banality of evil]]” might be invoked to help fill out the picture of the peanut-crunching crowd observing Biggs’s last hours. When [[Hannah Arendt]] covered the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, she found the architect of the Final Solution underwhelming. As she thought about the whole Third Reich, she found it populated not with arch-demons but with men and women who were mostly unremarkable. Eichmann, for example, was a shoe salesman in civilian life ((See [amazonify]0143039881::text::::Eichmann in Jerusalem[/amazonify] )) . The pretensions of those who watched the Biggs’s live-stream might have been great, but they were as a whole mediocrities who informed their pretentiousness through the media of bodybuilding ((Susan Sontag wrote about how fascists often put great stock in the cult of the beautiful body in her article “Fascinating Fascism” to be found in her book [amazonify]0312420080::text::::Under the Sign of Saturn[/amazonify]].)) . The Fascist enjoys having power over others and for him bodybuilding is a means to the end of intimidation ((Note there are other nobler reasons for working out such as being healthier. But this kind of gym exercise is non-exhibitionist.)) . In his company are wimpier types who find their fantasy lives fulfilled at the keyboard. I imagine a crowd of people who included store clerks, personal fitness trainers, salesmen, and the like who showed up at the feed just to experience a rush of pomposity as Biggs lived up to his promise. There were no great dictators in the bunch or serial killers ((If you exclude people who showed up both for this and for the Vedas suicide.)) or demons. Just ordinary people who would deny vehemently that they had done anything wrong.
The wine of denial is strong. When I wrote my first article about Brandon Vedas, one respondent wrote:
He made the choice. He “pulled the trigger”. He is dead. He has no one to blame but himself. He cannot blame others for his death. He can keep fucking himself in hell for what he did because he made the choice.
I assume that this is as close to an actual perpetrant of the goading of Brandon Vedas as I am ever going to get. There’s a hard sense of blame here, an eagerness to duck responsibility and to hope for satanic retribution. There can be no sorrow for Brandon, the writer says, because he evilly chose his destiny. Like Dante prodding the damned, this commenter wanted to carve his name on Vedas’s tree in the Wood of the Suicides.
No one connected with the Vedas suicide was ever slapped with a criminal or civil action.
Turning the event into an opportunity for showing one’s knowledge of clinical pharmocology and fatal doses is only a slight bit better than the outright goading. The disturbing thing is that a significant subset of those who watched the teenager’s final hours gloried in the felo-de-se or thought themselves admirable by maintaining a “clinical detachment” in order to gossip about the drugs involved.
[[Isaac Asimov]] said that the trouble with our age’s rapid scientific and technological advance was that our wisdom wasn’t keeping up with the changes. While our understanding of mental illness has improved immensely since the time of Dante — in fact since the time of [amazonify]014028334X::text::::One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest[/amazonify] — compassion still has not merged with our technology. We still react to web streams as we do movies or television news broadcasting. An online suicide is nothing more than an electronic vaudeville routine in some minds.
Our spurious culture has raced head, unable to make moral or ethical discriminations. The public is confused by farcical notions of civil liberty which treat social networking sites as arms of the government. Even when we do realize that we must speak against hatred based on skin color, we fall short when it comes to sporting with the mentally ill. Challenging racists has become part of the backbone of free speech: here we realize that free speech includes the right to point out and criticize those who harbor notions of superiority and hate based on skin color or ethnicity. We have no problem when Facebook bans hate talk (freedom of association is at play here), but here no reasonable proposals have been advanced to chastise the goofs who delighted in seeing Abraham Biggs kill himself on live video stream.
Before the Internet, the ability to privately broadcast the death of one teenager did not exist. We didn’t need to think about what to do. Now technology has created a new reality and new demands. The time has come to think about these things, keeping in mind civil liberties on one hand and compassion melded with common sense on the other. The righteous thing for bodybuilding.com and Justin.tv to do would be to cancel the accounts of the people who egged Abraham to his death. Freedom of speech does not prohibit action: it enables it. Voices must speak for manners, an old concept which allows our culture to deal with behaviors that aren’t illegal, but vulgar.
This gizmo that we have, this Internet, creates a new way of viewing human beings. The pixellatizing of people should not lead to their gizmonifying — their being turned into a mindless, emotionless part of the technology. Abolishing the person occurs in the mind when the flattening of persons occurs without members of society raising their voices. The Internet is a technology that connects people. Human beings remain unchanged even when the camera brings in new observers. What we say here affects persons to varying degrees that are hard to codify, but common sense can often guide us. Goading a sick person to suicide isn’t the same as pushing a wheelchair-bound-paraplegic in front of a Lamborghini but it comes close enough to demand that attention be paid. Wicked games demand firm resistance.