Top Scoops

Book Reviews | Gordon Campbell | Scoop News | Wellington Scoop | Community Scoop | Search


Samaritans and Voyeurs: The Briggs Case

Samaritans and Voyeurs: The Briggs Case

by Binoy Kampmark

Nineteen-year old Abraham Briggs, Jr. is no longer with us. He took his life on November 19 after ingesting a toxic combination of chemicals. The difference in this case was that it took place on a webcam. Briggs had logged into a bodybuilding website making the cyber announcement. Crowds of virtual viewers gathered. Some were thrilled by the spectacle; others were disturbed, vainly attempting to initiate a virtual ‘rescue’. A disturbing set of questions emerged on such ‘chat’ forums as Yahoo. ‘Where can I see that Abraham Briggs suicide video?’ queried one.

Was there an obligation for rescuing someone in Briggs’ disturbed situation? In the common law, no. There never has been, and the duty to rescue is a severely limited one, often imposed by categories (doctors, property owners, common carriers). Some American states have bucked the trend, passing statutes obligating the saving of imperiled strangers. The French civil code punishes those who fail to assist persons in danger. So does German law, which takes a dim view of those in neglect of providing needed assistance. Which viewpoint prevails on the net in such a case remains to be seen.

Certainly, there is a sociological angle to Briggs’ tragic demise. The stabbing and sexual assault of Kitty Genovese outside her New York apartment in 1964 offers a stark parallel. Screams were heard, but no one, fatally, as it turned out, reported them till later – these, after all, may have been the hot sounds of a domestic dispute, a private disagreement. The number of people who heard or saw part of the attack came to 38.

The more people watch, the less chance that someone will rescue. This is ethical weakness in numbers. Each viewer, and notably those online, may simply assume that someone else will assume the moral burden. Then there is that old cyber hazard: Is it real? Briggs’ voyeurs cited that ground after the event. Surely he will wake up? With anonymity and distance often comes diffidence and indifference.

Does this say anything about the bankruptcy of a society whose members must live in what seems like a disturbed simulacrum of fictional obligation and purpose? This question is akin to judging the merits of a therapeutic (or savage) treatment that may be accepted by some, but not others. Those having lost loved ones, notably those addicted to online communication, seek the virtual community for comfort. Topics are potentially endless. The citizens of the World Wide Web do not merely become counseled but counselors. Briggs must unfortunate to be neither, and was certainly not willing to be swayed.

Evidently, according to those who participate in the virtual world of the ‘online’ community, there are ‘cyber-buddies’ and supportive postings. Suicide attempts have been stayed because of the moral leanings of an empathetic audience. Author and blogger Ayelet Waldman was just such a case, claiming salvation from cyber Samaritans.

All communities (‘real’ or otherwise) have their bad apples and keen voyeurs. As ever, a play of ethical choices takes place before those crowds when faced by a potential victim, whether it’s the drowning person or those willing to take their own lives ‘online’. The medium is not the message here – it remains simply a medium with the same moral contexts of the non-virtual world. The question as to whether one saves the person in distress remains. In Briggs’ case, as with that of Genovese, it arrived too late.


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge and lecturer in history at the University of Queensland. Email:

© Scoop Media

Top Scoops Headlines


Any Questions: Scoop Launches New Q&A Website

It’s an easy way to find out party positions and allows you to view candidates’ answers side by side. It’s also a way for you to make your voice heard this election, and get the parties talking about the things that are important to you. More>>


Rawiri Taonui: The Maori Election

The election battle for the Maori seats 2017 opened last year when Maori Party President Tuku Morgan announced a peace deal with the Mana Movement aimed at securing all the Maori seats and holding the balance of power. More>>

Scoop HiveMind Project: Universal Basic Income - Are We Up For It?

This is an opportunity for you as one of the 4 million potential funders and recipients of a Universal Basic Income to collectively consider the issue:
1. Is UBI is a desirable policy for New Zealand; and
2. How should a UBI system work in practice. More>>


Lyndon Hood: National Announces Plan To Hit Youth With Big Mallets

The National party has announced its youth justice policy, which includes a controversial plan for recidivist serious youth offenders to be hit over the head with a comically large rubber mallet. More>>


Lyndon Hood: This ->

It's been brought to my attention that Labour's new campaign slogan is "Let's do this". A collective call to action. A mission. I myself was halfway out of the couch before I realised I wasn't sure what it was I was supposed to do. More>>


Scoop Hivemind Report: What New Zealanders Think About Affordable Housing

Ordinary citizens have had very few venues where they can debate and discuss as to what they believe has led to the crisis in affordable housing and how we might begin to address this. The HiveMind on affordable housing was about redressing the balance. More>>