December 8, 2009
Hope Witsell was a 13 year-old girl from Florida. She is the second young female to kill herself because she sent a ‘sext’ message and it ‘went viral’. She was infatuated with a boy her age and sent him a suggestive image of herself…and one way or another it was intercepted and ended up being out there on the world-wild-web. But, as tragic as her death is, and that of Jessica Logan, an 18 year-old in Ohio that preceded it…the real story that most Americans have paid little attention to is that the peers of both of these vibrant young people, turned on them like a pack of wild dogs. They were attacked by people who didn’t even know them except in passing and it became a relentless savage hounding that culminated in both of them feeling their young lives were ruined and that death was the only escape.
Hope’s mother found her hanging in her bedroom. She had become so desperate to escape the predations of her fellow students that she just couldn’t face another day of being called a ‘slut’, and a ‘whore’. The whispers, pointing, titters and name-calling by girls whom she had never even spoken with had become what amounts to an all out assault. When I heard this, I had to stop and wonder what in the world would cause someone to become so vicious, so unrelentingly nasty and cruel.
There are multiple factors that contributed, of course. For starters, there is the phenomenon of ‘piling on’. It seems very much like the behavior of sharks when blood is in the water. During a so-called ‘feeding frenzy’, sharks are lunging and snapping at the apparent food source, but, if one is accidentally bitten as this is happening, the others will turn on it and it suddenly becomes a target too, and is as doomed as the original object of the attack. During the Holocaust behavior of this sort was widespread in places like Lithuania, the Ukraine, and many other eastern European countries. Not content that the Nazi death squads were targeting the Jews, locals joined right in and persecuted their neighbors and townspeople as if they had never known them.
The truth is, Hope and Jessica were murdered. From an ethical viewpoint, there is no other conclusion one can draw. Yes, they both took their own lives, but there is no doubt that they would both be alive today had they not been the targets of the vicious onslaught by people who shared the same classes and schools. There will be no charges filed. Nobody will be held accountable…at least not by the Florida or Ohio judicial systems…and their memories will fade except in the minds of their friends and families who loved them. But, these two unnecessary and unwarranted deaths should stand as canaries in our social coal-mine. This is what life in a society where Honor is dying looks like. The attackers in both cases will probably comfort themselves by various forms of smugness and self-satisfied false piety. “Well, she never should have sent that picture.” Blah, blah, blah.
The predators in these cases apparently felt that it was just fine to act in ways that led to the deaths of fellow students. Where do you suppose they acquired the moral standard that considers this to be acceptable? Were they instructed by their parents: “Okay, you know what to do if any of your peers gets out of line, right?” I doubt it. Did they put together this bizarre code of conduct from watching television, playing computer games, looking around society at large. Nah. It wasn’t really a code at all, it was the ABSENCE of one.
They acted out the Lord of the Flies scenario: kids left to their own devices will revert to a savage level of societal conduct. I once knew a psychiatrist—one of the few sane ones I have met—Temple Burling, a professor at Cornell, who said this: “Kids need to be brought into the folds of a family and society and civilized. Otherwise, they will never learn how to be members of society and remain in a wild state.”Parents are leaving the ‘civilizing’ process to others, as they put all of their energy into just getting the roof and sustenance needs met. And nobody is really conveying the basic principles of what it means to be a civil citizen in a civilized society.