News & Op-Ed

Suicide Humor: Humanity’s Low Point

October 26, 2012

It’s something of a cliché that, following a disaster of sufficiently large scale, people of various faiths start declaring it the end of days. 9/11? The war of Gog and Magog. Hurricane Katrina? The Apocalypse. People have no doubt been declaring it the end of the world since the world first began. (Literally: The Talmud in Avodah Zarah 8a tells us how Adam panicked as the first winter approached. He had no experience with the days getting shorter and he assumed it was the end of the world!) Every time you turn around, it’s Armageddon or the Rapture.

While I can’t rule out any of these scenarios, it took a far more humble event to convince me that it may in fact be the end of days: the suicide of 15-year-old Amanda Todd.

You may have missed the story of Amanda Todd. I was only made aware of it when someone forwarded me a link since I had written some pieces about teen bullying. Here’s Amanda’s tale in a somewhat abbreviated fashion:

Three years ago, when Amanda was in seventh grade (which would make her around 12), she was on an Internet video chat when a stranger – who later turned out to be a good 15 or so years her senior – persuaded her to expose herself. He took a screen shot and later used the photo to blackmail Amanda. Ultimately, Amanda’s tormentor emailed the picture to everyone she knew – friends, family and classmates.

One would like to think that her peers would have been supportive, but such was not the case. The mistreatment Amanda received caused her to experience depression and anxiety. Her family moved and Amanda changed schools.

The story’s not over – not by a long shot! The image resurfaced as the profile picture of a Facebook page with the result that Amanda once again became the subject of teasing and bullying. Amanda changed schools again and things settled down briefly. Following an unrelated incident, in which she was beaten up by a group of girls, Amanda drank bleach. One might think that at this point her classmates would say, “Guys, we’ve gone too far. We’d better knock it off.” Again, such was shockingly not the case. Instead, classmates posted jokes online and expressed hope that she had died. They shared joke pictures of Amanda drinking bleach.

Amanda became an absolute wreck. She couldn’t leave the house. She abused drugs and alcohol. She was on anti-depressants. She overdosed. She cut herself regularly. In September 2012, she posted a video online telling her story. If that isn’t a cry for help, I don’t know what is. In October 2012, she was dead.

This is all horribly tragic but it’s not enough to convince me that it’s the end times. But the story still isn’t over. Pictures of Amanda have become an Internet meme, with captions variously mocking her for flashing online, drinking bleach or committing suicide. Sample captions include such heartless slogans as “Flash or get out – why not both?” and “Bleach cocktail – YOLO (you only live once).” The fact that her classmates – who exposed Amanda to the harshest cruelties on a daily basis – could do this after her death is mindboggling enough. That random strangers could join in to mock and deride a dead 15-year-old who never did them any harm? It’s the end of the world as we know it.

Why such hyperbole, you may ask? I’m not so sure it is. The Talmud in Sanhedrin (97a) tells us that Moshiach will come in a generation in which people have faces like those of dogs. This is a difficult metaphor. One explanation, given by Rashi, is that the people will be unbelievably brazen and shameless. I think we can agree that anyone who would mock the tragic death of a young girl doesn’t care what anyone else thinks.

Another explanation of “a face like a dog’s” is that it is meant literally. I still think it fits. Teasing a classmate for a lapse in judgment several years old may be inhumane but taking delight in a child’s suicide is inhuman. Anyone who would make her image with hateful captions a source of humor has effectively torn up their membership card to the human race. If you look at such a person, I don’t care what they look like, you’re looking into the face of a dog.

We’ve been talking about bullying nonstop since the suicide of Tyler Clementi in September 2010. Apparently, we’re not getting through. I wouldn’t believe that masses of people were capable of such organized cruelty even before Clementi was bullied to death. That this could be going on two years later means that a significant number of people just aren’t getting it. What can we do? I have no brilliant insights to offer.

What the man on video chat did to Amanda was literally criminal. He has since been identified and exposed by a hacker group; we can only hope that he will pay for his role in this tragedy. Hopefully, some of Amanda’s classmates may finally feel remorse and change their ways, even if it’s too late to help Amanda.

But what about the anonymous opportunists who desecrate Amanda’s memory by defacing her image with what they perceive to be witticisms? They became involved in this whole sordid affair after Amanda was already dead, fully aware of how hurtful their words would be to Amanda’s family and, truly, any decent person. Those individuals, I fear, are beyond humanity’s reach. I mourn not only for Amanda but for the generation that is capable of spawning such beasts.
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What do you think, readers? Have we taken anti-bullying education as far as it can go? Are some people simply beyond our reach? Are we at an impasse or is there a logical next level we can take things? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

 

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of five books, including The Tzniyus Book. His latest work, The Taryag Companion, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.