Heckling the vulnerable

Last week, I happened upon a depressing local news story about a teenager who jumped to his death from the top of a multi-storey car park in Digbeth, Birmingham. Admittedly, that’s hardly a side-splitting opening to this blog post – but stay with me. Because sadly, this tragedy has an even darker element to it.

Apparently, prior to the teen falling to his death, with police officers engaged in delicate negotiations to talk him down, a 25-strong “mob” of warm-hearted souls gathered at the site of the incident and proceeded to shout helpful words of encouragement, like: “JUMP!”. It was also reported that they whistled and shouted abuse while recording film and taking photos on their mobile phones, like some kind of ghoulish T-Mobile flash mob (Life’s for Sharing! Even the end of someone’s life, apparently). A witness at the scene later told the Birmingham Mail: “One boy, aged around 14, kept screaming at the man to jump. It was shocking.”

For someone so young to act so callously is indeed shocking. And sad. I find it difficult to understand the mentality of anyone who displays an eagerness to see someone kill or seriously injure themselves. Unless I caught wind of news that Tony Blair and George W. Bush were about to wheel themselves off the top of a 20-storey building in a shopping trolley, I would never dream of pulling up a chair at a police cordon to heckle and cheer.

The motivation for people to bark cold-hearted words at a suicidal stranger, teetering precariously on a ledge several storeys above them, seems to vary. But more often than not it’s linked to the pure outrage they feel at the inconvenience of it all. In a similar case in 2008, when 17-year-old Shaun Dykes jumped to his death from Derby’s Westfield car park, one member of the baying crowd was reported to have shouted that he was “wasting taxpayers’ money” (which is a wonderful thing to shout at someone who probably felt worthless to begin with).

Good point, you bleating idiot! I’m always much happier when our taxpayers’ pounds are spent on genuine and more deserving police incidents, like a good old fashioned armed siege or something. When Paul Gascoigne arrived in Rothbury in support of Raoul Moat, with a can of lager, some chicken, a mobile phone and some warm clothes, it was obviously a gift hamper to thank him putting taxpayers’ pennies to such good use. But as for desperate and vulnerable time-wasters…let ‘em jump! Then leave ‘em for the urban foxes to pick at so that we don’t incur the costs of transporting their bodies to the morgue.

Of course, some people turn up at a police cordon and simply become impatient for something to happen. This type of spectator doesn’t see a troubled human being lost in a fog of confusion and desperation, casting fleeting downwards glances at their own mortality. Instead they see a dog in a tutu about to plunge headlong into a paddling pool filled with custard. They’ve turned up for a show and they don’t want to be disappointed.

But whatever the reason for such a lack of compassion, it’s awful just the same.

Thankfully the comments beneath the Birmingham Mail article about this tragic, and very public, suicide were largely compassionate – save for a few hastily deleted comments from trolls (which probably read something like: “Who cares? Hiz hed went splatt! LOL!). But there was one comment I noticed, left by a user called ‘JanR’, which attempted to understand how some of the onlookers in Digbeth could have behaved in such a callous manner:

I’m not making excuses for these people but their attitude reflects a society where a man’s life pales into insignificance when compared to earnings on U-Tube (sic). When we see people dying every day on the screen (whether they are real or virtual) you must expect some people (especially the young with no experience of real life) to fail to grasp the facts before them. The ghouls who stood by and watched were just as un-sympathetic, just less vocal.

Even though YouTube’s community guidelines clearly don’t prevent people from uploading shocking suicide footage (as a quick search for “Budd Dwyer” has just proved) it’s not really the kind of material that makes you a prime candidate for YouTube’s Partner Program. There isn’t really a strong financial incentive for choosing to video someone’s harrowing final moments on a mobile phone for the purposes of uploading it to YouTube; you just have to be a despicable shit with a kernel-sized brain and a brick for a heart.

As for seeing death on-screen (both real and virtual), is that really something that can desensitise people to the point where they’ll happily take a few minutes out of their day to goad a troubled stranger into jumping to their death?

I recently wrote another cheery blog post about the multiple ways in which we absorb depressing news these days – through print, 24hr rolling news networks, dedicated news websites and social media, not to mention videos on YouTube – so we certainly live in an era when disturbing scenes of death and destruction are easily accessible and almost inescapable. But I don’t believe our exposure to such images – across so many platforms – has robbed us of our compassion, or the basic knowledge that people who jump from tall buildings tend to die rather than respawn.

It could be argued that the Birmingham Mail’s live-tweeting of the Digbeth suicide bid may have inadvertently directed many of the ghoulish hecklers to the scene in the first place. The instantaneous nature of social media enables us to pinpoint exactly where the news is happening at any given moment. Maybe it’s turned some people into news tourists. And maybe we do live in an entertainment-driven society, where everything – even someone’s darkest final moments – is packaged and consumed as an entertaining, interactive distraction, where we’re expected to gawp and cheer and jeer.

Let’s face it, every year millions of people tune in to I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! where we, the public, spend the first couple of weeks relentlessly targeting the weakest and most neurotic contestants, forcing them to devour kangaroo anus for our entertainment. It delights us. So maybe the heckling of broken, suicidal individuals is a reflection – or at least a product – of our modern society.

Having said all this, I’ve actually led you down this wordy black hole so that I can reveal that hideously awful wankers have always existed! Well before the advent of the internet, social media and rolling news stations, there are numerous stories of people gathering on the streets below motionless, suicidal husks, who have then proceeded to yell terrible things skywards.

In 1938, after nearly 11-hours, a 26-year-old man called John Ward jumped from the 17th floor of the Hotel Gotham on Fifth Avenue and 55th Street in New York, with thousands of pairs of eyes tracking his plunge through the night sky. “Look at all those people down there,” Ward was reported to have said. “I can’t disappoint them.”

A news article about the incident claimed that, even though fear initially “chilled the hearts” of those who saw Ward perched on the ledge, it was a feeling that was soon replaced with “speculative talk…gibes, arguments [and] wise cracks”. Furthermore, the longer the incident went on the more cynical the crowd became about whether he was going to jump at all. “And so a kind of perverted holiday spirit grew upon the crowd that watched him teeter on his dizzy perch,” chirped The Telegraph Herald.

In addition to this strangely cheery report about Ward’s suicide, the Herald also ran an article in the column below which calculated that his “death leap” had cost $130,000. “For 11 hours [Ward] tied up traffic, paralysed the business of the fashionable shops below, engaged the attention of hundreds of policemen [and] disrupted the routine of the old, ultra-conservative Hotel Gotham,” the article sniffily noted.

In 1969, in Kassel, Germany, a suicidal 19-year-old man called Jergen Peters had essentially been talked down from a 104-foot water tower by his girlfriend and some firemen – much to the disappointment of those who’d turned up to watch. However, each step closer to the ground only increased the volume of the “bloodthirsty” crowd’s booing and jeering, with one man shouting “JUMP, you coward!”.

Sadly, in spite of the firemen yelling at Peters not to listen, he quickly scrambled back up the tower and gave the crowd exactly what they wanted. “He heard their shouts, and 104-feet later…a real crowd pleaser,” went the chillingly upbeat newspaper headline.

There are, of course, plenty more awful stories from the dim and distant past about suicidal individuals being cruelly heckled to their death, but I’ll leave it there for the now.

The small group of people who hurled abuse at the teenager in Digbeth last week aren’t a reflection of ‘Broken Britain’, or the emotionless product of the Internet generation. They’re just the scum that naturally collects around the edges of society; a dark tidemark that unfortunately encircles us. It’s always been there, and I guess it always will to be.

The most we can hope for is that these hecklers will one day wake in the middle of the night, with the cold sweat of remorse beading across their haunted faces and the sickening thud of the suicidal stranger’s body hitting the pavement looping endlessly in their minds, like a scratched vinyl record. Forever.

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