December 2, 2008
The New York Times in an article that appeared on Tuesday November 25th tells the story of Abraham Biggs, a 19-year old community-college student who posted a suicidal note on the Internet. In his post, he indicated the drug cocktail he intended to take to end his life. Many responded to him, some even encouraged him to take the cocktail while others tried to dissuade him. Abraham then went on live stream video and approximately 180 people watched him take the cocktail and then die. The police was finally called but only when some viewers saw him stop breathing. It was too late.
Joshua Perper, the chief medical examiner for Broward county where Abraham lived said: "If somebody threatens suicide or attempts suicide, it's never a joke, it is always requires attention. It's basically a cry for help."
Why did it take so long for people to do "the right thing?"
Some people honestly believed that the whole thing was staged and not real and therefore did not respond. Others might have thought that Abraham was exercising his freedom in taking his own life. But how can we be sure that he was in full possession of his mental faculties and responsible in his act? It was later revealed that Abraham Biggs did suffer from bipolar disorder.
I am sure that some believed that someone else had called the police very much like in the Kitty Genovese murder that happened in 1963 where dozens of neighbors witnessed the attack but did nothing. This phenomenon, also known as the "bystander effect", establishes that individuals are less likely to offer help in an emergency situation when other people are present. The probability of help is inversely proportional to the number of bystanders.
French law imposes severe penalties for the voluntary abstention to carry assistance to a person in danger. Article 223-6 of the Penal code states: that whoever can prevent by its immediate action, without risk for him or to a third party either a crime or an offence against the integrity of a person, and does not, can be punished by five years of imprisonment and 100,000 Euros.
Under US law, one cannot be prosecuted for non-assistance of a person in danger unless there is an obligation of responsibility to the person in danger, such as a physician-patient or parent-child responsibility.
What would you have done had you been made aware of the dramatic situation? Ethics very often goes beyond the law. We are to act responsibly dictated by our conscience. We should always remember that, after all, we are "our brother's (and sister's) keeper."