Has the internet made us more vicious? I ask because it sure seems to me that we are quickly becoming a people who have forgotten how to empathize with others. With our computer anonymity many of us have decided we can "say" things over the World Wide Web that we would never ever say to someone's face. Cruel comments can be lobbed without personal risk, so we send them out like invisible hand grenades, set to explode when opened.
Read some of the remarks others leave behind at your favorite news website. Some of the remarks are way past mean; others are criminal, issuing death threats or illegally invading the privacy of others. Some recent actions taken with the help of the internet are also criminal. I'm speaking, of course, about the case of 18-year-old Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi, who committed suicide after learning that his roommate had rigged a web cam to beam out his tryst with another male student -- live -- over the Internet. Clementi's sadistically spirited roommate never gave a thought to how the shy classical violinist who was grappling with his sexuality might react to this horrific breach of privacy. And that's the problem!
Dare I say the internet has become our means of tapping into our inner sociopath?
It's not just the younger "Internet generation" but grown adults as well who fail to stop to think what effect their actions will have on the target of their cruelty. Psychiatrists will tell you that that's classic sociopathic behavior, a complete lack of empathy for others.
I told you a few weeks ago about a new book I've written, "Cirque Du Salahi: Be Careful Who You Trust," about the couple erroneously branded as the "White House gate crashers." In the book, which highlights the poor journalism behind the splashy tale, I revealed that Michaele Salahi has suffered for 17 years with multiple sclerosis. It was a gut-wrenching disclosure for Michaele, and she wept when she talked about it on television.
The internet reaction was jaw-dropping. The inhuman comments ranged from, "I don't believe it. I want to see a Doctor's note," to, "She picked M.S. because it matches with her initials -- she's too stupid to think of any other disease." Many posts hammered the couple for their past debts, and one went so far as to declare, "I'm wishing for a murder-suicide with these two."
No matter what the perceived transgressions of a fellow citizen, when that fellow citizen reveals that she has a life-altering, non-curable disease, I would think the proper response would be one of sympathy. Not in Salahi's case, and not in the case of Fox News commentator Glenn Beck after he recently disclosed he has a disease that might result in his total blindness. The internet comments included ugliness like this: "It is not Mr.Beck's eyes that should fail, rather his vocal chords should shrivel up"; and this one from a man named Brian: "Beck is already blind to the truth, so what does it matter if he can't see." Alyn wrote, "He should not lose his eyesight. He should lose his life."
What has happened to us? We're supposed to be the country where people are proud to live free and have the freedom to speak our minds and not be vilified for it. It's been our tradition for 300 years. Yet now, hiding under cover of a computer, some of us have devolved into Iran-esque cyber-stoning in the public square. Disagree with others' opinions, but don't wish people dead because of them!
Five young people have committed suicide in the last few weeks after constant cyber-bulling made them feel that life wasn't worth living. Each of them was trying to sort out sexual feelings and did not yet have the adult ability to shrug off the ugly internet attacks. From New Jersey's Rutgers University to small towns in Massachusetts, California, Texas and beyond, the lure of producing hateful missives and hitting the "send" button without so much as a second thought has contributed to needless deaths. Schools and other institutions hide behind the idea of freedom of speech as the reason why this can't be curbed. But I'm reminded by Wendy Murphy, a victims' advocate from Boston, that, "the federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals put it ... succinctly in 2002: 'There is no constitutional right to be a bully.'"
Our laws and legal system must catch up to our technological ability to harass, defame and torture others through our computers. I propose that prosecutors pursue the maximum penalty in the Rutgers suicide case (where two young people stand charged) as a signal to other hate-filled people that the behavior is just not acceptable. If we can teach people the proper etiquette for a bowling alley, we can certainly try for the same on the Internet, right?
The temptation of instant Internet connectedness has indeed put us in touch with our inner sociopathic feelings -- from stupid and immature students to adults who write that they wish someone was dead -- and I'm ashamed of us.