Nineteen-year old Abraham Briggs, Jr. is no longer with us. He took his life on November 19 after ingesting a toxic combination of chemicals. The difference in this case was that it took place on a webcam. Briggs had logged into a bodybuilding website making the cyber announcement. Crowds of virtual viewers gathered. Some were thrilled by the spectacle; others were disturbed, vainly attempting to initiate a virtual ‘rescue’. A disturbing set of questions emerged on such ‘chat’ forums as Yahoo. ‘Where can I see that Abraham Briggs suicide video?’ queried one.
Was there an obligation for rescuing someone in Briggs’ disturbed situation? In the common law, no. There never has been, and the duty to rescue is a severely limited one, often imposed by categories (doctors, property owners, common carriers). Some American states have bucked the trend, passing statutes obligating the saving of imperiled strangers. The French civil code punishes those who fail to assist persons in danger. So does German law, which takes a dim view of those neglecting to providing needed assistance. Which viewpoint prevails on the net in such a case remains to be seen.
Certainly, there is a sociological angle to Briggs’ sad demise. The stabbing and sexual assault of Kitty Genovese outside her New York apartment in 1964 offers a parallel. Screams were heard, but no one, fatally, as it turned out, reported them till later – these, after all, may have been the hot sounds of a domestic dispute, a private disagreement. The number of people who heard or saw part of the attack came to 38.
The more people watch, the less chance that someone will rescue. This is ethical weakness in numbers. Each viewer, and notably those online, may simply assume that someone else will assume the moral burden. Then there is that old cyber hazard: Is it real? Briggs’ voyeurs cited that ground after the event. Surely he will wake up? With anonymity and distance often comes diffidence and indifference.
Does this say anything about the bankruptcy of a society whose members must live in what seems like a disturbed simulacrum of fictional obligation and purpose? This question is akin to judging the merits of a therapeutic (or savage) treatment that may be accepted by some, but not others. Those having lost loved ones, notably those addicted to online communication, seek the virtual community for comfort. Topics are potentially endless. The citizens of the World Wide Web do not merely become counseled but counselors. Briggs was unfortunate to be neither, and was certainly not willing to be swayed.
Evidently, according to those who participate in the virtual world of the ‘online’ community, there are ‘cyber-buddies’ and supportive postings. Suicide attempts have been stayed because of the moral leanings of an empathetic audience. Author and blogger Ayelet Waldman was just such a case, claiming salvation from cyber Samaritans.
All communities (‘real’ or otherwise) have their bad apples and keen voyeurs. As ever, a play of ethical choices takes place before those crowds when faced by a potential victim, whether it’s the drowning person or those willing to take their own lives ‘online’. The medium is not the message here – it remains simply a medium with the same moral contexts of the non-virtual world. The question as to whether one saves the person in distress remains. In Briggs’ case, as with that of Genovese, it was asked and answered too late.
BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge and lecturer in history at the University of Queensland. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org