As a long time student of the absurd lengths to which people will go to defend an abstract principle in denial of pressing reality, the news item about the “suicide voyeur” William Melchert-Dinkel, a 47 year old man from St Paul Minnesota, is a compelling example of how bad an intellectual pose can get.
Pretending he was a women half his age,* Dinkel trolled suicide websites (NB) and encouraged people to kill themselves in front of web cams for his sexual gratification. He’s suspected in at least five suicides and was believed to have encouraged as many as a hundred around the world. While pursuing his “suicide fetish (sic)” he worked as a nurse in hospitals and nursing homes.
After years of doing this he was outed by Celia Blay, a 64-year-old woman with few technical skills, who tracked him down when police refused to become involved. The details of the case are pretty awful but even worse is the fact that the criminally degenerate Dinkel will likely get off without prosecution in the United States. As he has put it
"Nothing is going to come of it, ... I've moved on with my life, and that's it."
And, given the free speech fetish in our current legal culture, he’s probably right. As he moves on with his life, his victims will, of course, not. The law that St. Paul police used to finally stop him, for now, is likely to not be deemed to cover internet predators of his kind, encouraging people to kill themselves for his gratification on web-cams. If he never serves a sentence of a day, it wouldn’t be surprising. Here is how Jonathan Turley puts it:
Turley said that if prosecutors file charges against Melchert-Dinkel, convicting him would be difficult, especially if the defense claims freedom of speech.
The law professor said efforts to make it illegal to shout "Jump!" to someone on a bridge have not survived constitutional challenges. "What's the difference between calling for someone to jump off a bridge and e-mailing the same exhortation?" he said.
You have to wonder, if the law is unable to prosecute Dinkel for what he’s done so far, how is it supposed to stop him if while “moving on with his life”, he starts right up all over again? And you can be certain that if he’s done it, there are many others. If there aren’t, now that his example has been made public, there will be. The internet has made it possible for people like this to find an unlimited supply of vulnerable victims, destroying them from the relative safety of virtual anonymity. Just as an aside, you can be sure that there will be some people doing this with skills that would prevent future Celia Bleys from finding them.
If the over-hallowed documents that our fabled, 18th century founders imposed on 2010 are unable to prevent this kind of degenerate from preying on vulnerable people, cheating them of far more than just their “free speech” rights, then they are inadequate for our present environment.
The absolutist viewpoint, removing any legal restraints from depravity up to and including encouraging vulnerable people to kill themselves on camera, is the one that is currently in vogue everywhere from the left to the far right of the Supreme Court. As Turley put it, “ if the defense claims freedom of speech,” that is the magic formula that grants a carte blanche in just about every case, these days. From this case, we can see just how little regard for peoples’ lives some of those civil libertarians really have. We can see how much power they are prepared to allow someone with no morals and a sick fetish to have over the vulnerable. In a libertarian system, power always triumphs. Libertarians believe they are the champions of freedom, when they’re exactly the opposite of that. A tyranny outside of government, allowed by government, is worse than the possibility of a tyrannical government. The present situation is an instance of government shirking the first reason that it is instituted, defense against danger.
But this legal fashion has other dangers as well, which could lead to exactly the consequence it pretends to prevent.
Eventually this situation will pass the point where people will tolerate it and a reaction will come. The danger of that will be, of course, that the enemies of speech vitally important to freedom and self-government will gain the upper hand and destroy the real value of the First Amendment. For today’s self-professed free speech industry to turn a blind eye to this is grotesquely irresponsible. In this case they proudly put their conception of “free speech” over the lives of the victims of these sickest of predators. Ultimately they endanger important speech merely on the excuse that it’s dangerous for governments and courts to make distinctions among different kinds of speech.
But that is fundamentally dishonest. The very business of governments and courts is to make judgment calls. Every single law that is passed and every case that is decided in some way is a gamble on whether or not the human being making it will make the right decision. To pretend that it is impossible to distinguish between the right to advocate the civil rights of a minority or the need for economic justice and Dinkel’s pursuit of his death fetish is about as absurd as it gets. To pretend that government and the law are unable to make that distinction is to pretend that it isn’t what they do now.** It’s what judges and lawyers do every single day they go to work. And it is to call into question the very basis on which government acts to produce an effectively beneficial result.
When I first decided to write about this I was going to concentrate on the horrific crimes of Dinkel but after reading some of the stories, the fact that our legal system is set up to protect him instead of his victims, in the name of “free speech”, turned out to be the bigger story.
* Some of his known aliases are "Li Dao," "Cami" and "Falcon Girl." I’d guess it’s important that he was posing as a woman and pretending to be sympathetic to his victims, especially given his identification of this as a “fetish”. If you want to see how depraved this is:
"im just tryin to help you do what is best for you not me," one message said, posted using the alias "Cami." Kajouji's mother said she was given a transcript by Ottawa police.
In another exchange, "Cami" tried to persuade Kajouji to hang herself instead of jumping into a freezing river: "if you wanted to do hanging we could have done it together on line so it would not have been so scary for you"
** Oddly enough, many speech absolutists don't have any problem with restrictions on the basis of repeating commercial speech. Of course, that speech is usually the "property" of the wealthy and so powerful.
NB: Suicide websites, websites that encourage suicidal people to kill themselves, websites that encourage anorexia as a lifestyle choice and a myriad of others like them are freely available to their potential victims. The ability of anyone with self-doubts to be able to come across these basically changes the world, it isn’t something that can be addressed with the bromides and platitudes of the 1970s anymore than it can those of 1790. Some changes in the environment are so strong that they force changes in even our most sacred assumptions. I think they will force a heightened level of responsibility on the society, like it or not. Pretending that isn’t the case won’t do anything to produce good results or preserve freedom.
Also note, I am fully in favor of laws allowing suicide for people with terminal illnesses, that isn't what this is about.