Sunday, October 23, 2005

Bird Flu Media Hysteria

Let's all calm down a bit. The media and governmental hysteria that is being whipped up in the talk of bird flu becoming an international pandemic is all too familiar. First, how about setting aside the illogical statements coming from the Bush administration. They are feeding into the media frenzy by saying they are set to call out the military, declare quarantines, and close the borders, when it is well-known that this does not stop bird flu (hey, birds fly, remember).

So, catch your breath, and compare the bird flu predictions of global mass deaths to recent media scares of a similar nature.

In The Copycat Effect, I wrote:

In the summer of 2002, the West Nile virus was declared a great danger to Americans. As it developed, however, only a small number of people died (54), but as the Christian Science Monitor noted, “One would think from media reports that Americans are suffering the plague.”

During the spring and summer of 2003, Severe Acute Respiratory Disease, the “SARS epidemic,” replaced the hysteria of the West Nile virus. SARS first emerged in November 2002, in the Guangdong province of China, but by the first warm months of 2003, you would think it was spreading like wildfire all over the world. On April 23, 2003, USA Today was warning that health officials were saying that “if SARS is not contained, it could cause millions of deaths worldwide - and some of those deaths would almost certainly occur in the USA.” The death drumbeat of the media was very clear.
USA Today continued: “In terms of sheer numbers, the SARS epidemic so far pales in comparison to other worldwide epidemics. The Spanish flu of 1918-1919 killed roughly 30 million people, including about 675,000 Americans. Over the past 20 years, the slow-motion funeral march of AIDS has carried off 20 million people; 40 million more are poised to die in the next decade. Yet SARS is just beginning. The death toll could rise dramatically.”

On June 24, 2003, the newspaper that publishes “All The News That’s Fit to Print” did a special sciences spread on the “SARS Epidemic.” The
New York Times had proclaimed it the “Summer of SARS,” just as surely as Time had crowned 2001 “The Summer of the Shark.” The source of the disease was unknown and serious, but a look at the known death tolls in June 2003, when the “epidemic peaked,” reveals that worldwide there were 812 deaths, of which 348 were in China, 298 in Hong Kong, 84 in Taiwan, 32 in Singapore, and 38 in Canada.

For all the talk of wild animal attacks and deadly viruses sweeping the world, it is obvious the media misses the bigger picture daily, instead going for the melodramatic, the dramatic, and the sensational. If news organizations were really interested in talking about the most deathly animal around, for example, they would be doing more reports on mosquitoes which, according to the World Health Organization, are responsible for two million deaths annually from encephalitis, Dengue fever, malaria, and the West Nile virus, or the tsetse fly which wipes out another 66,000 people every year. But a news story about a mosquito just doesn’t have the bite of a shark story obviously.

The media loves melodrama. Sensationalism now rules the news. In the human realm, the media reinforces the events it covers. Otherwise, it blows subjects out of all proportion to reality. The unjustified amount of attention it devotes to shark attacks and SARS, for example, demonstrates that the level of media coverage has no relation to the real impact these topics have on most people.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Chatroom Copycats

We've heard about them in Japan. Now the media is reporting on what they are calling "the first internet suicide pact" discovered in the United Kingdom. And the method the couple used was directly copied from recent Asian pacts.

The bodies of Christopher Aston, 25, and Maria Williams, 42, were found in a car in Greenwich Peninsula Park, near the Millenium Dome in southeast London, at 7 p.m. on February 23, 2005. Aston, a Ph. D. student who grew up in the street next to Penny Lane in Liverpool, and the unemployed Williams, a former private detective and convicted fraudster who used the name Sanchez, poisoned themselves with fumes from burning barbecue charcoal,according to the report of the inquest. They died two days after making contact for the first time on a chatroom dedicated to discussions about suicide.

The Guardian's Ian Cobain reported, "Mr Aston and Ms Williams were found together in her red BMW, parked outside a branch of the TK Maxx store, a place which her family say she liked because she had used 'dodgy credit cards' to shop there."

Cobain noted that due to this suicide, "Internet companies are being urged by the Home Office to make so-called suicide websites and chatrooms more difficult to access." [Mr. Cobain, of course, shares his name with Kurt Cobain whose suicide has since spawned at least 70 copycat suicides worldwide.]

The suicides of Aston and Willians, however, are not the "first internet" suicide pact in the UK. In The Copycat Effect, I report on the 2003 deaths of Louis Gillies, 36, and Michael Gooden, 35. They met on the internet, exchanged messages, and decided to kill themselves together. Journeying to the famous "suicide cliff" of Beachy Head, they were going to jump together. Gillies did and died. Police charged Gooden with assisting the Gillies suicide, but before standing trial, he was found hanged in his home on April 22, 2003, when he failed to appear at court.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Oklahoma's Suicide Bomber

On Saturday evening, October 1, 2005, University of Colorado student, 21-year-old Joel Henry Hinrichs III of Colorado Springs, killed himself with a bomb. He was sitting near the university's Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman, which at the time was filled with more than 84,000 football fans. The game between the Oklahoma Sooners and Kansas State was undisturbed. The explosion only killed Hinrichs, who was sitting on a park bench outside Cross Hall, a university science building, just west of the stadium.

"He was a very intelligent, very private individual who somehow lost the confidence that his life would be a good one. Obviously, every parent believes their son is a good kid, and I certainly believed that about mine," said his father, Joel Henry Hinrichs Jr., according to reporter AP Jeff Latzke. Hinrichs' father also noted he did not think his son had even one friend.

Was the younger Hinrichs an al Qaeda wannabe, just like Charles Bishop, who flew into a Tampa, Florida building, in imitation of the 9/11 suicide hijackers?

According to the Northeast Intelligence Network, while searching Hinrichs' apartment, Colorado "officials stated that they recovered 'a significant amount' of Islamic 'Jihad' type literature, some possibly written in Arabic, along with the suspect’s computer. Some of the documentation included material on how to construct bomb-making vests."

In terms of the copycat factor, hours earlier, half a globe away, it was already Saturday, October 1st, 2005. News hit the media late on September 30, and early on October 1st, in the USA and around the world, that three suicide bombers had walked into the midst of families eating in three restaurants in Bali. The resulting explosions left, so far, 19 people dead, and over a 100 injured. It was a reminder of the October 12, 2002 disco suicide bombers that killed 202 dead, many of them being nightclubbing Australians.

Was Hinrichs a vulnerable, lonely, suicidal young man who became a copycat Jihad warrior, in hopes of joining "something"? Will tomorrow's next and perhaps more dangerous American copycat suicide bomber have a similar psychological profile?