On Dec 3rd, Naeem Davis, a homeless Muslim man, shoved a middle-aged Korean man in front of an oncoming Q subway train in Times Square. A Muslim photographer snapped a shot of him waiting to die that appeared on the cover of the New York Post and then went around the world. And that was that… except it wasn’t.
On December 28, there was another shoving murder. After the latest round of murders, suicides and accidental deaths, seven people have died under trains in 2013; a number that does not include the deaths previously mentioned. Last week two people committed suicide by jumping in front of trains. Another was killed in a possible accident. One lost a leg. Two others were seriously injured. And this week there was another suicide.
For those who might be wondering, these numbers are not normal. But they are predictable. While the MTA discusses the cost of putting up platform barriers, the actual triggering mechanism was the New York Post photograph of a dying man waiting to be hit by a train. And that photograph has dark implications for school shootings as well.
We like to think that we have free will. That we enter the station, knowing our destination ahead of time so that whatever delays or mistakes crop up, we will get to where we intended to go. And that may be true for most people. But it’s not true for all people. It may not be true for the people who push others under trains or jump in front of them.
Around the same time that the American Revolution was getting underway, the German writer Goethe wrote a book that would become the Catcher in the Rye and Twilight of its day. “The Sorrows of Young Werther” had the dubious honor of being disowned by its author, starting a fashion trend and a grimmer trend as well.
Werther Fever spread around the world. Readers wrote parodies of the book or imagined different endings for the characters. Some wrote themselves into the story or wrote poems about the story. There were unauthorized sequels, people dressing up like the characters and all the usual things that we have now come to take for granted, but that were still somewhat new and surprising then.
And some committed suicide like Werther. The Werther Effect was born and it had a sneaky way of resurfacing whenever and wherever the book became popular again.
Some 200 years later, German television debuted “Death of a Student”, a six-part series about Claus Wagner, a high school student who commits suicide by jumping under a train. Each episode began with Claus jumping under the train. The series was supposed to teach teenagers that suicide was wrong, or as Big Fun from Heathers sang, “Teenage Suicide (Don’t Do It)”; but it had the opposite effect.
The real message of “Death of a Student” was the same message as that of The Sorrows of Young Werther, if you kill yourself, lots of people will pay attention to you. And suddenly the number of teenage boys killing themselves by jumping under a train increased by 175%. Having failed to prevent enough suicides, the show aired a second time. This time fewer people were watching and the suicide rate for teenage boys only went up 115%.
A few years later in neighboring Vienna, suicides went up when they were featured on the front page and fell 75% when they were pushed to the back page, without mention of the word, “Suicide.” Young Werther, in his blue-tailed coat and yellow vest, stopped chasing the trains of the Vienna underground.
The suicide cluster is a well-known phenomenon, especially among teenagers; it is why the media avoids coverage of teenage suicides… with one exception. A teenager who hangs himself in his garage, jumps under a train or turns on the gas will generally not make the front page or even the back page. But if he takes a gun into a school, opens fire and then commits suicide, Young Werther will be front page news for days, weeks or even months.
James Holmes of the Aurora Massacre did not kill himself, but like Werther he picked up his own groupies, the Holmies, some of whom dye their hair orange and dress like him. Misery loves company and so do the unhinged. As the media began covering the Holmies, the fan club increased with the amount of condemnatory coverage. The usual media cycle of promoting what it pretends to discourage for its own profit, so that it can cover it even more, had begun.