Web suicide 'a modern version of what we've had for centuries'

It was the latest outrage from the wicked world of the Web: A 19-year-old Broward County man committed suicide in front of a live Internet audience, taking a lethal dose of pills as people urged him on.

For those who believe the Web is populated by hordes of anonymous sadists, the suicide of Abraham Biggs was further confirmation of the Internet's intrinsic depravity.

But for psychological, legal and sociological experts, the Nov. 19 suicide raises questions that go far beyond the domain of the Internet — questions about the nature of our responsibilities to one another, the boundaries of our public and private lives, and the extent to which technology actually changes anything.

Biggs' death online, while not the first, certainly had few precedents. From start to finish, he executed the act in front of an interactive Web audience. Even as some tried to dissuade him and sought help, others egged him on.

While the method of suicide employed 21st-century logistics, was it really different from someone jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge or setting himself on fire in a medieval town square?

"It's clearly a modern version of what we've had for centuries," said Lanny Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology. "There have always been public suicides and some people who in their death sought attention, which, perhaps magically, they considered they'd be able to appreciate."

The hard question to answer is why someone would choose a public suicide over a private death.

"Honestly, there's not a lot of data on that specific question," said Dr. Mark Cavitt, medical director of pediatric psychiatry services at All Children's Hospital.

What would push someone to do it online has been studied even less.

When a person chooses to kill himself or herself in a public forum, Cavitt said, it often raises questions: "Is it a display of anger and revenge that they want to inflict trauma on the audience? Is it, on the other hand, a request that they want someone to intervene and save their lives?"

In either case, the Internet provides an opportunity for isolated people to reach out to a wider audience than they could reach in almost any other venue, albeit an audience made up largely of strangers.

The public-private dichotomy is at the center of what makes this suicide so unusual. Thanks to the Internet, there is a blurring of the lines where a private bedroom becomes a public stage, a solitary act takes place in the midst of a virtual crowd.

It is this crowd that holds interest for Michael Kearl, a sociology professor at Trinity University in Texas.

"Having the audience encouraging the act of self-destruction holds a host of implications about what kind of culture we've become," he said. "It's not a kind one, let me tell you."

Kearl compared Biggs' Internet death to a suicide in England at the beginning of October, where a crowd encouraged a suicidal teenager to jump to his death from a parking garage, some even joking about how high he would bounce. When the teen hit the ground, camera phones were pulled out, Kearl said. The sad scene was quickly converted into another text message.

"Nowadays, what's real? What's not?" Kearl said. "So many individuals are blurring the realities of cyberspace with real life and virtual death."

Tampa lawyer David Tirella handles cyberbullying cases, many of which take place between the real and virtual worlds. Online suicides will occur even more often, he said, with this generation of people fixated on documenting everything in their lives.

As far as the watchers, though, it's a moral problem, not a legal one.

"Sad as it may seem, there really is no responsibility or liability for any viewer," said Tirella, who is also an adjunct professor at Stetson College of Law. "It's no different than if someone was standing on a ledge in New York City and there were 1,000 people down below screaming, 'Jump! Jump! Jump!' "

The case falls into a body of law about one's "duty to rescue,'' said Peter Lake, a law professor at Stetson. In many countries, bystanders are obligated to become Good Samaritans, but in a host of countries whose legal traditions descended from England, there is no such responsibility.

In this respect, a suicide like Biggs' highlights a callousness in American society that far predates the Internet.

Students from other countries have trouble understanding the lack of responsibility we take for one another.

"It's hard to explain to the world why we're so cold," Lake said.

But while the law may not hold the onlookers responsible, he said, "morally it's really hard to justify sitting and watching someone die and not doing anything."

Jonathan Abel can be reached at jabel@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4157.

Web suicide 'a modern version of what we've had for centuries' 11/28/08 [Last modified: Monday, December 1, 2008 1:04pm]

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