Having spent a year amassing a corpus (word stock) of nearly 45,000 samples of writing from various public forums—insults, threats, overtures, bizarre screeds and vicious exchanges posted to message boards and social media accounts—some startling trends have been noted once those exchanges are disaggregated (separated according to identifying features) using the appropriate software. In brief, a categorical breakdown of words, word orders, sentence structures, and screen names provides insight into why—at least in Canada—some of the most notorious, and tragic, cases of cyberbullying have been correlated with sexual offending. For instance, the January 2014 arrest of the Dutch suspect known only as “Aydin C” for international acts of cyberbullying and sextortion, including acts that led to the 2012 suicide of 15-year-old Amanda Todd as one of his victims, mirrors a number of other cases where cyberbullying and the possession or production of child pornography tend to occur concomitantly. As my recent publications suggest, there is now cogent and demonstrable evidence suggesting that cyberbullying has a salient and deviant sexual component, and might in fact be classified as its own paraphilia.
From the Greek word “para,” meaning “beside” or “other,” and “philia,” meaning “love,” the term describes an attachment to or fixation on objects, images, people, or circumstances that are either forbidden by conventional society or prohibited by law—often both. The first definitive and credible list of paraphilias, along with some related case studies, was likely populated by Dr. Richard von Krafft-Ebing in his foundational textbook Psychopathia Sexualis, originally published in 1886, and which laid out some of the paraphilias that are commonly known today. These include scopophilia (voyeurism), exhibitionism, pedophilia, and necrophilia—all of which have serious crimes associated with them. These are what are therefore more broadly known as criminal paraphilias, or compulsions and attachments that are so inherently bizarre and offensive that indulging them inevitably violates criminal law. Conversely, preparatory paraphilias—of which there are nearly four-hundred—represent fantasy attachments and preoccupations that can sometimes serve as gateways to more serious criminal offending. For instance, somnophilia (erotic fixation on or excessive fantasizing about sleeping and submissive people), taphophilia (erotic fixation on or excessive fantasizing about cemeteries, funerals, or mortuaries) and galateism (erotic fixation on or excessive fantasizing about statues, mannequins, or dolls) are all preparatory paraphilias that have been shown in the forensic and clinical literature to prefigure necrophilia. At the same time, some of the more innocuous “lifestyle” paraphilias that encompass role playing, cos play, bondage, or similar consensual acts never progress beyond the preparatory stage, and often have no known accompanying criminal paraphilias with which they’re associated.
The origins of paraphilias and how and why they take hold to dominate a person’s life has been the focus of much debate. Some experts have proposed a combination of environmental and biological explanations. For instance, necrophilia—previously mentioned—has been affiliated with diminished intelligence and compromised brain development in countless case studies (biological), as well as parental neglect and sexual prohibition in the home during developmental years (environmental). It is also disproportionately represented among persons of both genders who have a paralyzing fear of rejection or abandonment, or who were punished as children for viewing erotic material. Other explanations are purely environmental, the most compelling and frequently cited being what’s known as the “vandalized love map” theory.
The vandalized love map theory was first proposed by pioneering psychologist Dr. John Money at Johns Hopkins University in the 1980s. Money proposed that it is human nature, and the product of our evolutionary biology once we begin to develop a sexual curiosity and awareness of our bodies in childhood or early adolescence, to instinctively form innate interconnections between sex and consent, love and lust, intimacy and respect. If left to his or her own devices, a healthy child in a healthy household will do this on his or her own accord, using his or her parents and other adult role models as exemplars. These ensuing connections are what are collectively known as the love map—a frame of reference for all intimate relationships through each stage in life. However, the child who (during this very sensitive and exploratory, curious, and role-playing stage) is subject to mockery, prevention, prohibition, or punishment will have the routes of reference between sex and consent, love and lust, intimacy and respect all corrupted and re-routed. As the child’s love map becomes vandalized and healthy connections are damaged, the child becomes imprinted with ideas of thebody and intimate situations that are highly abnormal, even violent and humiliating. Like so many things in life, it all goes back to childhood, and the trauma associated with a vandalized love map will in later years offer form bizarre sexual preferences that replace people with objects and consenting and reciprocal situations with bizarre and sadistic fantasies left to fester as the child grows older and learns to act on them.
Fast-forward to today and how the digital sphere and ubiquity of devices that deliver images and information that can be accessed in private have changed the way that paraphilias develop—and created new ones altogether. A 2015 Brigham Young University study, for instance, suggests that the Western world is actually on the verge of a “loneliness epidemic” wrought by our superficial dependence on social media and its normalizing of what would have historically been seen as actually very anti-social behavior. The study suggests that the long-term effects of this alienation and the anxiety brought on by digital pressures will have catastrophic effects on physical and mental health—a crisis that many would rightfully argue has already started. In a world where, as other studies have suggested, nearly 50% of people would rather have an attractive online profile picture—even a doctored or Photoshopped one—than actually appear attractive in person, and where over 50 million Americans are dependent on mood altering prescription drugs, it would appear as though the line between fantasy and reality is increasingly a blurred one. It is therefore not a stretch to hypothesize that amidst this sea change and ensuing celebration of the superficial and the illusory, the way that paraphilias are classified—including what classifies as deviance in the first place—will also change, and new research into the relationship between fantasy, technology, socialization, and sexual deviance needs to be undertaken. This is in part why studies on cyberbullying have really just been scratching the surface. The reality is that in many cases there is a more insidious and paraphilic component at work but that has yet to be substantively identified, especially among adult offenders who—based on some of the individuating data drawn from the 45,000 samples I’ve collected to date—suggests are the worst offenders.
While traditional schoolyard and workplace bullying has become a very well-studied phenomena in recent decades, cyberbullying and similar acts of online deviance have until now overlooked what is perhaps the key distinction—aside from the distance and time lapse between offender and victim—of cyberbullying in comparison to “corporeal” bullying as it’s known. The fact that cyberbullying, trolling, etc. is relegated to a written form in nearly every circumstance allows for a more structured and empirical examination of offending and victimology through the use of established linguistic analysis techniques. The results of these analyses have to date suggested that cyberviolence committed to writing immediately engages two preparatory paraphilias that have existed for quite some time in an offline, analog form—paraphilias that have now taken on a digital, networked (cyber) dimension. In other words, the medium might well have changed, but the underlying motives and behaviors have not.
The first of these paraphilias I actually discussed a previous blog post, where I outlined how trollers and cyberbullies appear to be digital versions of telephone scatologists—compulsive and sexually motivated obscene callers. In the last several months, after overlaying my corpus of text samples on to some of the historically documented methods and words employed by scatologists, this appears to be an even more accurate deduction than initially thought. In fact, the corpus suggests that three previously identified categories of scatologists—the “panic inducer,” the “annoyance creator,” and the “trickster”—are also identifiable categories of cyberbullies and trollers based on repeated similarities in word stocks. Using the scientific method and established data collection, curation, and visualization techniques, the connection between online deviance and obscene telephone calling as mutually paraphilic activities now appears to be largely cemented, and is discussed further in my article “Towards a Cybervictimology” published in a 2015 edition of the Canadian Journal of Communication. But it doesn’t stop there. It turns out that there is in fact an even more obscure—and equally dangerous—paraphilia engaged by acts of cyberbullying and trolling, and which predates even the advent of the telephone and classification of scatologia by the American Psychiatric Association. It’s what’s known as coprographia.
Coprographia: From the Greek “copros,” meaning “filth or feces,” and “graphia,” meaning “to write” or “to draw,” it is a lesser-known paraphilia defined by erotic fixation on, excessive fantasizing about, or sexual gratification and empowerment obtained through the writing of obscene, vulgar, or shocking material. While much of it is thought to be involuntary and fall within the spectrum of Tourette’s Syndrome and other clinical mental disorders, there are also studies that suggest it is in fact quite voluntary, even recreational in nature in some cases. There is also indication that the writing and posting of traditional personal letters offers the most intense cultivation of fantasy and arousal,with the transit time between the authorship of a document and its eventual delivery, receipt, and ability to elicit a reaction in the recipient being what drives the offender. In many cases, the writer is satisfied merely visualizing, guessing, or fantasizing about what that reaction might be or when it might happen, expecting no response in return.
Cybercoprographia: The same phenomenon as coprographia but enabled and even intensified by a networked environment, and with personal letters being substituted with electronic writings where the transit time between authorship and receipt is determined by the medium, platform, or application used by the writer. This may also explain why certain online forums seem to be more prone to abuse than others, with offenders targeting them selectively based on this necessary “build up” or deferral of gratification. The clinical and forensic history of coprographia is sketchy at best, though some notable case studies suggest that, like scatologia, it can serve as one or both a stepping-stone to serious violent offending, or can present itself contemporaneously with attack paraphilias up to and including sadism and necrophilia. While it has been speculated that the thrillmurders committed by David Berkowitz (The Son of Sam) and the officially unidentified Zodiac Killer were directly tied to their lurid writings sent to the newspapers and police of the era—that the murders were primarily used as means to an end, or as actions that would enable the generation of these taunting letters—the content of these writings, at least with respect to the early cryptograms sent by the Zodiac, is not really in keeping with other documented cases of suspected coprographia. The more tell-tale case would therefore be that of Albert Fish, the so-called “Werewolf of Wysteria.”
Even the grandiose and Gothic sounding alias assigned to Fish by the media of the day doesn’t appropriately capture the abject horror and brutality of his crimes. Between 1924 and 1932, he is suspected to have kidnapped, murdered, and cannibalized up to ten schoolchildren in the areas of Brooklyn, Staten Island, and elsewhere through the greater New York City area. These crimes, like those of Berkowitz and the Zodiac, later became the excuse for Fish to author obscene and taunting letters, the difference being that he sent these crass pieces of correspondence to the families of his victims rather than to the press. After being arrested in 1934, Fish was summarily tried, convicted, and executed in the electric chair, the infamous “Old Sparky,” at Sing Sing Prison in 1936 at the age of 65—one of the oldest men ever executed in the United States. A look at Fish’s early life and experimentation with various preparatory paraphilias, including the same type of coprographia that later compelled him to write obscene letters to the families of murdered children to prolong and protract his psychosexual gratification obtained from murder, provides some insight on how this paraphilia can quickly escalate and evolve to take on new forms of offending. It once again points to the fact that digital iterations of these practices are similarly connected to both deviant fantasy and paraphilias developed in early life.
Having grown up in an orphanage and hailing from a long line of paternal-line mental illness and mood disorders, Fish was a poster child for Money’s vandalized love map theory, having been severely beaten and abused during his boyhood to the point that he would seek and later enjoy, in a masochistic sense, the pain of that same abuse and torture as his sole form of human contact. As is not uncommon, these masochistic drives began to morph into sadistic impulses and the need to inflict pain on others. It was around this same time, while working as a house painter and having access to family residences in a position or trust, that Fish began molesting children. It is also around this same time in early adulthood—already harboring deviant fantasies and displaying paraphilias that broadly encompassed sadism and pedophilia—that Fish began experimenting with coprographia.
By 1900, while married yet moonlighting as a male prostitute and inveterate voyeur at public bath houses, Fish began anonymously responding to personals advertisements in various newspapers, including Lonely Hearts Club classifieds that served as the progenitor to more discreet dating services created in the late 20th century—and which are now largely relegated to digital personals ads and hook-up sites like Tinder, POF, or other paid dating websites. Fish, unlike some later serial killers like Harvey Glatman who used these same Lonely Hearts Club services to troll for victims, was simply satisfied sending the female members replies by way of letter that were really nothing more than rambling screeds that indulged in obscene name calling, threats, and descriptions of what he thought the women looked like. Even once having irreversibly escalated to serial murder and cannibalism, Fish continued to send these anonymous and offensive letters during his cooling-off periods between crimes, eventually—including a specific case in 1930—his responding to regular employment classifieds through the mailing of irrelevant and unprovoked but entirely grotesque letters. Curious that for prolonged periods, these acts of letter writing—including the climactic wait time between document generation and receipt by the victim—seemed to be able to keep his sexual sadism contained. Even while a condemned man and waiting his execution, Fish used his final hours on Earth to indulge his coprographilic drives one last time, requesting a pen and paper to compose a final statement—his last words—to be delivered to the court and the people of New York via his lawyer, James Dempsey. After the letter was written and handed to Dempsey to publicly recite, the dismayed and disturbed lawyer refused, claiming that the writing was “the most filthy string of obscenities” he had ever read in his life.
Fish, as described at his trial, certainly endures as a “psychiatric phenomenon” as experts of the day from the Bellevue Mental Hospital described him, and is obviously an extreme outlier in terms of coprographia. His case, while extreme, is nonetheless topical in an age where cybercoprographia as the digital and networked version of what amounts to the same thing—intentionally offensive, lewd, and alarming documents or writings being anonymously generated and sent either to specific individuals or to users of a specific space. Like Fish’s Lonely Hearts Club personals, contemporary digital versions also seem to have preferentially targeted victims based on their personal circumstances or personal information that can be gleaned from social media or messaging sites. In a preliminary analysis of these posts—and the associated screen names—there is actually very little in the way of versatility or variability shown with respect to the obscene or insulting content being written, nor with respect to the screen names of offenders that—like Fish’s own delusions—reflect grandiosity, fantasy, and detachment from reality. In brief, coprographia as one of the lesser-understood paraphilias has left us with little in the way of a body of research and knowledge that might help us gain better insight into the link between fantasy and deviance online, at least with respect to anti-social activities such as trolling and cyberbullying that are target or environment specific and which necessitate that acts of abuse being committed to writing—the hallmark of coprographia’s chief distinction from other paraphilias.
As scholarship and both clinical and forensic insight in this area progresses, some key questions that require addressing are whether what appears, based on publicly reported incidents, to be an over representation of cyberbullying cases with simultaneous dabbling by offenders in other sex crimes is the exception or the rule. Like in Fish’s case, might it be that coprographia can both prefigure significant future offending—both online and offline—or does it also serve as a referral paraphilia as the sender begins to experiment with more violent attack paraphilias? The finding of consistent answers to these questions has been hindered and the research further complicated by the fact that the vast majority of incidents are thought to go unreported—in part because of the inability or lawmakers and law enforcement alike to keep up with technical trends and develop a sustainable framework for criminalizing and then subsequently investigating cases of cyberbullying.
Some recent (2014) research coming out of the United Kingdom—initiatives spearheaded through logical collaborations between Scotland Yard’s Home Office and various universities—has actually sought to distinguish between “cyber-dependent” crime and “cyber-enabled” crime. The latter would describe most acts of cyberviolence or online sexual offending, whereby the Internet has not necessarily created as much as dramatically expanded the opportunity and scale of offending. If we therefore examine the way that historical paraphilias are similarly “enabled” and allowed to take on new computer-mediated forms, a number of the anti-social behaviors seen online can be better understood in the context of the historical research. In other words, what’s old is new again. How and why coprographia became cybercoprographia is therefore less arcane, and is actually the secondary and less important questions as compared to how, like in Fish’s case, we can learn to recognize signs of escalation—cyberbullying as a type of distant early warning and accurate predictor of other forms of paraphilic offending. Perhaps then, at last, law makers who have failed in many cases to appropriately recognize that this is one of the key socio-legal and cultural issues of our time, will stop with the pennywise plodding and half measures and take seriously the creation of proper legislation, protocols, and infrastructural support for law enforcement.]]>
What’s more interesting is that Rust Cohle is not the burned-out cynic he seems to be on the surface, but is what’s known as a nihilist. In many ways the series actually pays homage to the works of German philosopher Frederich Nietzsche, generally regarded as the poster boy for nihilism, or the idea that life is inherently meaningless, control is an illusion, and that people opiate themselves with fairy tales and delusions only because they, like Cohle, “lack the constitution for suicide.” Series creator and writer Nic Pizzolatto later admitted that nihilist philosophers and authors like Ray Brassier and David Benatar influenced the script and the creation of McConaughey’s character, but in actuality the entire first season is remarkably similar to Nietzsche’s novel Thus Spoke Zarathustra, composed in four parts between 1883 and 1885. Even the tagline for the series, “touch darkness and darkness touches you back” marks an almost literal reinterpretation of Nietzsche’s quote, “when you look long into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you” first published in Beyond Good and Evil in 1886.
As a cop, Rust Cohle was not only a nihilist, but was also too good at his job and too smart for his own good. Resigning in haste after being railroaded by corrupt bureaucrats intent on keeping the secrets of a murderous cult connected to a dirty local sheriff under wraps (this is putting it simply), Cohle knows that the police mythology of catching bad guys and fighting for justice is one of many fairy tales that keep society from imploding. When he says, “you people will eat your young as long as you have something to salute,” he is really summing up 150+ years of traditional, Machiavellian police micro-management practices that keep the “true” detectives like Cohle on ice as they are simply bad for business. Ironically, Cohle believes in nothing, yet is far more effective than his peers who spew ideological maxims and define themselves by their jobs, but which of course they all perform poorly. Yet, even in retirement and in the throes of degenerate alcoholism, Cohle is compelled to act—to carry on and work the unsolved slayings of his earlier career with the knowledge that no one else will. Although life to him is pointless, time is a flat circle, everyone is no one, and nothing really matters, he carries on with remarkable obsession. This is because Cohle is the Übermensch, or what Nietzsche saw as the “Beyond-man” or “Overman” (often wrongfully cited as the “Superman”) who believes God to be dead and life pointless, but who acts morally and heroically of his own free will and innate design. It is in this inevitable pointlessness of life that the Übermensch as a self-mastered individual makes his own meaning, doing so with no expectations of anything in return, least of all reward in an afterlife. The Übermensch, like Cohle, thus truly knows himself, and knows that only in meaninglessness can one find—and make—real meaning through the will to act.
The Übermensch was first introduced in substantial form in Thus Spoke Zarathustra and is most frequently associated with this text. Other themes explored in the same book—denial of universal truths, renouncement of the afterlife, and the eternal recurrence of the same (ie: the Groundhog Day phenomenon)—are all cornerstones of nihilist philosophy. Over the years, Nietzsche’s brand of nihilism, especially the idea of the Übermensch, has been grossly misinterpreted and twisted to suit various political and genocidal agendas. Cited as inspiration by mass shooters, the Eugenics movement in the United States and Europe, and most infamously as part of Hitler’s “final solution,” Nietzsche’s writings have been among the most manipulated of academic texts on record.
Today, at long last, True Detective marks what is perhaps the most faithful depiction and ingratiating interpretation of the Übermensch for the lay public in recent history. With Cohle as the Übermensch and serving as a modern chain-smoking incarnation of Nietzsche’s title character Zarathustra, his disavowal of all of the things that society takes for granted as “fact” enables him to see what others don’t. As he intimates at several points in the series, denial is perhaps the greatest barrier that holds people back from their true potential and from summoning the will to act. While his partner laments the “detective’s curse” and the inability to see the forest through the trees and the clues that present themselves immediately in front of him, Cohle sees the world through a different lens altogether. He is afraid of nothing and no one, and is therefore truly in control when most people only have the illusion of control. Most importantly, because he defaults to logic and reason in every circumstance and does not have his judgment clouded by tradition, superstition, or sentimentality, he is in some sense superior in everything he does. In terms of policing—a vocation that Cohle admits was the only one in the world tailored to his personality—he serves as a broader symbol for a coming sea change in law enforcement today.
True Detective takes a number of shots at the inefficacy of public policing across three decades, and as part of nihilism’s “eternal recurrence of the same,” reminds us that between the early 1990s and today, not much has evolved in terms of police procedure. There have of course been remarkable advances in crime scene sciences but, generally speaking, Western policing represents the oldest unchanged institutional model in the developed world, having gone largely unreformed since 1829. While healthcare, education, and finance—professions that policing will often try to imitate in terms of semantics and risk management practices—have all evolved and reinvented themselves to parallel contemporaneous changes in culture and society, law enforcement as the eternal recurrence of the same is inherently nihilistic by design; this in part explains why Cohle acknowledges he and the job were made for each other. Today, in the wake of True Detective as a massively influential narrative that shines a light on how secular reason and rationality supersede ideology when it comes to effective criminal investigations, the series additionally establishes a nexus between the Übermensch as an entity liberated from society’s collective groupthink, and what is known as evidence-based policing.
Police work has always been concerned with the collection of evidence, but the irony is that the profession itself has never been guided by the same rules of empirical exactitude. Evidence-based policing, a model being advocated primarily by a handful of criminologists in Canada and the United Kingdom, as well as experts at the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy in Virginia, serves to do for policing what the Scientific Revolution did for business, industry, and exploration. Contrary to other models of policing—most either discredited or simply not sustainable in the current age—evidence-based policing describes a system of investigative efficacy and accountability that centralizes knowledge and awareness of “what works” in practice rather than adhering to often antiquated policies or traditions that have no longer have any demonstrable value. Evidence-based policing requires that police managers produce clear and cogent evidence for how established procedures enable crime prevention, ensure officer safety, and allow for the timely completion of investigations and apprehension of offenders rather than, as Cohle says, just giving people “something to salute” by default. Moreover, evidence-based policing requires that, like evidence-based medicine, officers be aware of police-related research and literature and be allowed to actively participate and contribute to research and innovation. Much like how Cohle’s partner in True Detective, Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson), remarks that Cohle has amassed a remarkable amount of knowledge on how to interpret crime scene behaviors from “reading one of [those] books,” evidence-based policing marks a shift toward integrating original academic research in law enforcement training curricula, and then making it both accessible and applicable in the field. If nothing else, evidence-based policing means real accountability and accuracy through peer-review. This is a process that is now centuries old and taken for granted in other accredited professions, but which remains the proverbial the boogeyman in modern policing for reasons that should make everyone—especially “true” police officers—rather concerned.
At the remains of the day, evidence-based policing is not really a radical concept, though it obviously stands to create upheaval within the odd institutional culture of law enforcement. In the United Kingdom, for instance, police agencies have been using original peer-reviewed research to improve investigative, human resource, and deployment tactics for years, with the results speaking for themselves. The use of privately subcontracted crime scene labs in the UK as a matter of efficiency and expediency is just one example of how such research has focused on “what works” as opposed to clinging to the edifice of old policies that use “tradition,” heritage,” and other ideological maxims as smokescreens, and that espouse the status quo by default—even when the status quo is blighted by abysmal failure. First published as a research paper by criminologist Lawrence W. Sherman in 1998 as part of the Ideas in American Policing Series, evidence-based policing is about building on the British model and the type of outsourced officer safety and offender recidivism research conducted by the FBI, and making it both accessible and interesting to front-line officers. That said, just as Sherman noted back in 1998 (the same historical period covered in True Detective), “just doing research is not enough,” as operational officers need to see themselves as part of a larger continuum of knowledge acquisition and recirculation, and with police administrators having to justify their practices based on the results of those collaborations, rather than their own career interests or managerial agendas. The Society of Evidence-Based Policing (SEBP) that is currently leading the charge on this issue, has summed up the idea of an experiment-led policing model as being rooted in three guiding principles:
In terms of how a television series can at once be a meditation on nihilism and a vehicle for advancing debate on how to reform criminal investigative procedure and bring it closer in line with the rigors of a post-industrial and knowledge-based society, we see the hidden value of cop shows lies in their being what are known as “didactic narratives.” Put simply, didactic narratives are stories, usually fictional, that offer tangible factual or moral lessons, and that impart some (usually subtle) learning or professional development objective. Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866), for example, is more than just an exposition on profit-motivated murder; it is a parable that foreshadowed and prefigured the requirement to weigh mitigating and aggravating circumstances during sentencing as part of judicial procedure today, as well as a cautionary tale about utilitarianism, rationalism, and idealism as the guiding principles of the law. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) is not just a tech-noir action film, it is a cerebral and existentialist meditation on what it means to be human, as well as an essay on the moral, legal, and environmental consequences of what known as Moore’s Law and technological progress generally—not to mention the current police-industrial complex.
Could it be that True Detective, as a crime-oriented iteration of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and also as a didactic narrative might similarly advance the discourse on evidence-based policing? Stranger things have happened. Consider the iconic police series Dragnet that debuted on NBC in 1951 and which depicted LAPD Detective-Sergeant Joe Friday as both protagonist and narrator. Friday, played by native Los Angelian Jack Webb, initially managed to cause high anxiety for local police brass who feared the series and its fictive treatment of the LAPD might make them look foolish. That worry subsided later that same year when, following the series premiere, LAPD Chief William (Bill) Parker attended a national convention of American chiefs of police in Dallas. Once there, his colleagues from across the country chose not to address him as they normally did—as Chief Parker, Mr. Parker, or even as Bill. They instead chose to call him “Friday,” in reference to show’s lead character. It turned out that every top cop in America other than Parker had been watching—and loving—the new show. From that point forward, the LAPD reactively aligned itself with Jack Webb’s Mark VII production company while senior officers consulted on scripts and provided information on real cases for telegenic replication, eventually using episodes of the series as official instructional videos—didactic narratives—covering everything from proper handcuffing procedure to effective suspect interviewing methods at the LAPD training academy. With the series being single-handedly credited with sanitizing the public image of Parker and the LAPD, and generally elevating status and respect for the whole of the American police fraternity, that same LAPD training academy later renamed its flagship building and graduation auditorium in honor of Webb following his death from heart failure in 1982.
As a similarly didactic narrative that might first lead to some trepidation among the natural born bureaucrats endemic to contemporary policing, True Detective’s lessons are not as straightforward as those in Dragnet, and the series is unlikely to end up being screened in any police academy any time soon. With that said, its teaching points are inarguable, and the series uses 19th century continental philosophy as vehicle for positing a case—even if unintentionally—for the merits of evidence-based policing. While likely not finding its way into police academy auditoriums anytime soon, the series will nonetheless end up being screened in countless classrooms committed to higher learning, including mine. Another reason for this is that the series is also a great example of what’s known as second order forensic semiotics (FS2), or the way that forensic techniques and investigative methods are often mutually developed between real and fictional entities both simultaneously and circuitously. More on this idea of FS2 and the role of the didactic narratives in modernizing police work will follow in one of my forthcoming books, Gothic Forensics: Criminal Investigative Procedure in Victorian Horror & Mystery (2015). In the meantime, to learn more about the merits of evidence-based policing, try the links below—after you watch True Detective.
I seem to have piqued a great deal of interest in law enforcement, academia, and in particular the commercial press recently regarding my views on the inherently, yet somewhat ironically anti-social nature of social media.
Before proceeding, however, I should clarify that ‘anti-social’ does not mean what most people think it means. Being reclusive, shy, avoidant, or withdrawn does not in itself constitute anti-social behavior, though most laypersons will typically be quick label this type of conduct—more accurately labeled as ‘asocial’—as being anti-social. In reality, anti-social refers to the specific, clinical definition as found in the DSM-5; namely, that anti-social behavior, as the symptomatic and diagnostic criterion for anti-social personality disorder, generally consists of three or more of the following traits:
a) Failing to confirm with social norms or lawful behavior
b) Ongoing deceitfulness, including lying, the use of aliases, or exaggerations
c) Consistent and reckless impulsivity
d) Consistent and persistent aggressiveness and physically domineering behavior
e) Reckless disregard for the safety of one’s self or others
f) Consistent irresponsibility and inability to maintain personal, professional, or financial obligations
g) An ongoing and demonstrated lack of remorse or emotional intelligence
Anti-social personality disorder—a condition marked by behavior that affects personal and professional functioning in adults 18 years of age or older—is generally understood as the prime meridian from which all criminal behavior stems, and was originally identified, classified, and subsequently pathologized in the context of traditional work, school, public, and social settings. That said, what constitutes the norm in terms of these institutional, environmental, and informally-regulated everyday relationships has changed since the identification and classification of this disorder. The emergence of Web 2.0, for instance, complete with its intuitive referrals to social media platforms as part of everyday searches, in effect integrating and parlaying these interfaces into the realm of everyday life, has since engendered a world where people are content defining themselves through two-dimensional screens displaying images of one-dimensional people—literally and figuratively. Most of my students these days have literally never known a world that antedated this model; they have never known a place or time that the rest of us now can’t remember—when social rituals required a requisite element of personal investment and personal risk through interactions that were genuine, unscripted, and tangible, and through statements that couldn’t first be previewed, redacted, or retracted.
On the flipside, those nostalgists, cynics, and laggards who lament the passing of the time before shorthand initialisms like ‘lol’, ‘tmi’, or ‘bff’ ruled the day, or prior to the asemic language of emoticons defining daily communication, have not likely come to terms with the fact that computer-mediated interactions, in particular social media, now prevail as the most genuine—though inane—form of human interaction. In fact, its ubiquitous nature has ensured that the learning curve and risk tolerance of its users has been massive as compared to the adoption of earlier technologies like the telephone, largely as a result of its going to mass market faster than any other communications platform, trend, or device in history. The result is a literal treasure trove of compressed data encompassing the real, candid, and visceral nature of human behavior (individual and group alike), that is arguably unrivaled in the history of modern science and record keeping. In short, the content of social media reveals in detail the best and worst of humanity that the real world conceals.
Dispensing with the widely-held delusion that a social contract in the form ‘netiquette’ somehow exists, the reality is that online profiles are to large extent emancipated from the stresses of the off-line world and its cumbersome rules, laws, norms, customs, and general expectations of behavior, and they in nearly every circumstance reflect and enhance the baseline personality of their creator. In the sterilized fantasy space of the online world, personality types—whether aggressive, assertive, or passive—tend to be exaggerated and intensified as compared to in everyday encounters. There are a number of reasons for this, but one of the most cogent explanations is that the Internet, and in particular social media, engenders mimetic behavior (hence the coinage ‘memes’ to refer to imitative behavior online) that is not only egocentric, but allows deviants to camouflage themselves all-the-more easily and seamlessly once tolerance levels for misbehaviour reach unusually high levels, as they do online. As Oscar Wilde wrote in 1905, noting the similarly rehearsed and artificial social masks that the charlatans of his time would don when attending society events to assert their self-perceived notoriety in mixed company: ‘Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry.’ Over a century later, it would seem this is no longer bad thing, but a daily expectation and the rule to the exception.
The reality is that the self-commodification, superficiality, and exploitative nature of social media—whether in the way of daily smartphone self-portraits in the bathroom mirror, keeping estranged ‘friends’ around like old collector’s items to artificially inflate one’s perceived popularity, or indulging in bizarre, attention seeking behavior to maximize ‘likes’ or ‘re-tweets’—blurs the line between the normal and deviant, the grotesque and the arabesque. It also spawns the perfect breeding ground (and by extension hiding place) for the most anti-social of them all: the psychopath.
The Hare Psychopath Checklist
The term ‘psycho’ tends to get thrown a lot when describing certain people, usually males. While psychosis is not analogous to psychopathy, and is generally the symptom of a separate and often underlying psychiatric or neurological problem, the label psycho as a truncated version of psychopath is often as misused as the term anti-social. Not surprisingly, the two are inherently connected.
While some emerging research suggests that psychopaths may actually be born rather than made, the ability to clinically and credibly label someone a psychopath requires a certain elevated score on what’s known as the Psychopathy Checklist Revised (PCL-R), sometimes referred to as the Hare Psychopath Checklist in honor of its designer (and like me, a Western U alumnus), Dr. Robert Hare.
Generally speaking, the checklist—consisting of 20 questions broken into 3 categories, or ‘factors’ as they’re known—assesses the subject’s appetite for risk-taking, as well as their propensity for narcissism and aversion to emotion, empathy, and self-responsibility, among other traits generally indicative of anti-social personality disorder. The checklist to be applied to a specific clinical subject, conducted in the way of both observations and questions, is then as follows:
Factor 1: Personality: “Aggressive narcissism”
Factor 2: Case history: “Socially deviant lifestyle”
Traits not correlated with either factor
For each item that applies to the subject, a score of 2 is assigned, while a score of 1 is applied for those cases when the item only somewhat applies. A score of 0 is assigned in cases when it either does not apply, or when there is no observational or empirical basis for judgment. Scoring the results of the checklist, either conducted during personal interviews or during less-credible ‘distance assessments’ is somewhat arbitrary, though it is generally agreed that a score of over 30 out of the maximum score of 40 falls within the spectrum of criminal psychopathy. For instance, Charles Manson scored a 36 on this test while ‘Monster’ Aileen Wuornos scored a 32 prior to her execution in 2002. Of course a score over 30 does not necessarily indicate that the subject is prone to escalating to serial homicide as in the case of these two test subjects, yet it does point to a certain predisposition to potentially harmful or socially toxic conduct.
What’s interesting is the number of subjects who, using the distance assessment methodology I describe above, score at the very least within the sociopath range of 25-30, and in some cases 30 or higher when examining the contents of their social media persona. In fact, social media not only enables but also celebrates most of the traits of ‘aggressive narcissism’ described in Factor 1, as well as the undesignated factor (Factor 3). It goes without saying that conning, manipulating, artificial accumulation, disingenuous greetings and remarks, boastful, overbearing and arrogant behavior, self-grandiosity, mocking people, places, or ideas, exaggerating emotions and descriptions of things or one’s experiences, and both exaggerating and lying generally are all at the foundation of the earnest social media experience.
These traits are in fact the lifeblood of what now constitutes most people’s daily and digitally-mediated social interactions and relationships, and have in effect desensitized the masses to what truly virulent and psychopathic behavior looks like. So accustomed are we to this strangley normalized rendering of psychopathy, that when truly dangerous predators emerge on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, or some other platform as a rehearsal space for their crimes—seeking validation or admiration for their perverse thoughts or plans of action—or are instead seeking out like-minded deviants or vulnerable, dependent people and thus potential protégés in those same spaces (what is generally known in criminology as Differential Association Theory), they tend to just blend in with the white noise of the all the other nonsense being spouted for attention and notoriety. This is not to say that everyone who indulges in social media is prone to psychopathic behavior or misuses these platforms for an anti-social purpose (obviously), nor is it to say that social media creates psychopaths per se; however, what we need to consider is how psychopathy has ambulated into this digital space, yet seldom remains there. Conversely, psychopathy forged or reified online will eventually have real-world consequences, and users of these spaces should not only recognize the warning signs—or pre-attack behaviors—but also recognize that social media, as the attention brought to its role in cyber-bullying has taught us, often intensifies the real-world consequences of the criminal activity that follows. As cases in Canada alone involving psychopaths like Rafferty, Twitchell, and others not yet convicted have shown, the writing is literally on the wall days, weeks, and even months ahead of their crimes, yet the warning signs typically remain overlooked.
Social Media, Paraphilia & Psychopathy
The baroque and artificial nature of social media is also closely tied to illusion and fantasy, the latter in particular being what’s known as the ‘centeredness’ of the psychopath. In the cases of psychopaths who graduate to serious violent offences, including serial homicide as the most commonly associated crime category, we find that three of the four commonly identified serial killer sub-types of organized offenders (visionary, hedonistic, power-control), have a centerdness of misplaced, obsessive, and pathological fantasies, typically of a sexual or pseudo-sexual nature. Devious sexual acts, fantasies, or compulsions that drive an offender in this fashion are what are known as paraphilia, which are themselves divisible into two distinct classifications: preparatory paraphilia, that serve as the gateway behavior or fetish of a psychopath, and attack paraphilia which are the devious acts that forms part of that actual killing or victimizing process, and usually surface once the preparatory paraphilia become tiresome, no longer stimulating the psychopath’s need for attention, excitement, power, control, or some combination thereof.
Once again, consider the checklist of preparatory paraphilia as they now present in an online form, particularly in the context of social media:
Erotomania: Unreasonable or unreciprocated love for, or obsession with a total stranger, ie: the linchpin of most social media ‘creeping’ activity, and the basis for probably most random or unsolicited friend requests.
Exhibitionism: Exposing one’s body in any capacity to others, usually without their approval, and in an attempt to gain attention and self-arousal through shock value and/or eliciting comments, whether good or bad ie: the strategy behind impulsively uploading and/or sharing of lurid self-portraits on Facebook timeline, Instagram, or Twitter.
Voyeurism: Excitement or arousal from being able to watch others, usually in a personal or private environment, without their knowledge or consent (I shouldn’t even have to explain how this one connects).
Last but not least, we come to what is known as scatalogia. Recognized as one of the most alarming preparatory (or pre-attack) forms of paraphilia for decades, in part due to its being mythologized in films featuring psychopaths who rely on this fetish and their ensuing ‘paraphilic attachment’ to specific victims (Black Christmas, Halloween, Scream, et al.), scatalogia (sometimes cited as telephone scatalogia) has historically involved making obscene, harassing, or hang-up phone calls to either random targets, or a specific victim, in advance of an actual attack. Historically, the fear induced through the use of vulgar language, threats, or labored breathing by making an anonymous landline telephone call provided the psychopath with a sense of power, control, excitement, and ritualistic repetition that appeased their sexually deviant proclivities for the short-term. In some cases, though not all cases as depicted film, television, and urban legend would have us believe, these calls escalated to actual attacks once the associated stimulation began to wane, or once a victim stopped answering the phone, involved the police or telephone company, etc… That was then, this is now.
The Troller as Paraphilic Psychopath
With the demise of the conventional home telephone and rise of the Internet, there emerged a new breed of psychopath whose twisted, sadistic fantasies would still find conduit through which to incite annoyance, fear, loathing, and hostility as a means of excitement. The psychopathology and social dysfunction that inspires scatalogia obviously predated the landline telephone, and it now also postdates it, with pre-attack behaviour consisting of obscene and threatening language having now been transplanted into a digital milieu that still allows this same type of anonymous, cowardly, and remote harassment and intimidation to continue unabated, and yet also strangely tolerated.
The rise of the Internet ‘troll’, a psychopath and scatalogist by definition, and a deviant who epitomizes the worst of social media and the open-source modularity of the Internet in general, has simply changed the medium through which this preparatory paraphilia is now finding an outlet. The coinage ‘troll’, as a truncation of ‘troller’, of course describes someone who for self-gratification, self-entertainment, or a sense of empowerment, provokes confrontations and heckles insults, profanity, and threats from the safety of an online pseudonym, and generally sabotages otherwise innocuous and peaceful online profiles through the hypertext approximation of an obscene or harassing phone call. Trolls can typically be found lurking in any open-access forum, such as newspaper or chat room comment boards, but are typically indigenous to social media like Facebook and YouTube where user groups and channels respectively are targeted for harassment and humiliation that is typically unprovoked, and very much emblematic of the same features that defined unwanted, perverse, and paraphilic communication (and attachment) by telephone in years past.
While typically cited as little more than a nuisance and a necessary evil of the Internet’s global reach and newfound affordability among the crazies and societal flotsam of the world who, historically speaking, would typically never have had access to or interest in computing activities, the reality is that trolling as a digitally-mediated rendering of scatalogia is just one more element of social media that appeals to psychopaths. Whether luring children, engaging in cyber-bullying, or simply rehearsing crimes through preparatory and escalating acts of deviance, trollers as the interlopers of the Internet are now able to find a strength in numbers that, as social pariahs and sexual deviants, had previously eluded them, their having previously been limited to rehearsal acts carried out in the much riskier real world. And while the real world carries with it real consequences that occur in real time, there are of course no police officers patrolling online in any tangible capacity—at least not in terms of social media—and even if there were, the ability to obtain IP information (provider, subscriber, etc.) is fundamentally limited without evidence of an obvious criminal act having been committed. Even then, obtaining that information by way of (in Canada anyway) a Warrant to Search under section 487 or a Production Order under section 487.012 of the Criminal Code takes time and multi-jurisdictional resources that often elude serious investigations already underway in earnest, including transcontinental cyber-crime cases.
It is also interesting to note that—once again going back to serial offenders as the group that is perhaps the most frequently associated with psychopathy and paraphilia—a ‘troller’ is one of the four identified classifications of serial attacker (typically serial killer) based on geographic profile. For instance, a ‘hunter’ tends to search for suitable victims in their immediate and familiar environment; a ‘poacher’ is a transient who searches out targets while on the road and out of their normal habitat where they are not known and able to blend in with strangers and other passers-by; and a ‘trapper’ tends to have some existing acquaintance with their victims and lure them to their fate. Conversely, a ‘troller’, in keeping with the traditional profile, is someone who acts opportunistically, often recklessly. A troller—when dealing with serial offenders in particular—is in the simplest terms a predator who acts and attacks often at random while carrying out their day to day activities, and whose main modus operandi is variable and defined solely by the plane where their own motivation coupled with the vulnerability of a suitable target meet. These types of offenders tend to act at random and not leave any evidence suggestive of a specific victimology or motive, in part why they are so unpredictable, dangerous, and difficult to catch. Like the trolls of the Internet that have inherited this same moniker, certain media platforms, websites, and profiles (cyber victims) seem to be similarly selected based on their vulnerability, accessibility, and the ability of the troll to fulfill the compulsions of their associated scatalogia by inciting anger, fear, or withdrawal, whether in the way of disabling comments, shutting down a site, deleting an account, or just opting out of the space altogether. In any of these scenarios, the psychopath is validated and empowered and the paraphilia continues unabated until it theoretically, like the scatalogia of old, allows the offender to transition to a more tangible and direct form of domination.
While trollers—certifiably psychopathic or otherwise—tend to have their social media profiles immediately dissected and publicly analyzed by news media, law enforcement, and academia after the commission of a serious crime, the reality is that the etiology of psychopathy that is spawned in the real world and then raised online suggests that social media needs to combed proactively for offenders in waiting. Not unlike how citizens have taken ownership of monitoring activity in their own communities and neighborhoods in the absence of a ubiquitous police presence (Neighborhood Watch, Citizen Academy, Citizens on Patrol, etc.) so too do the lawful and ruling majority of pro-social users of these virtual spaces and social media environments have a duty to monitor those same spaces for the types of suspicious or threatening behaviour that would raise alarm or demand intervention in the off-line world. Simply put, the online environment should be seen as an aggravating rather than mitigating factor with respect to someone’s bizarre and often paraphilic behaviour. In the wake of recent mass shootings in the US in particular, the media is always quick to point out potential ‘warning signs’ and ‘clues’ about a suspect’s mindset that were left on social media sites as an omen of their impending madness, or as cryptic teasers that foreshadowed the commission of their horrific crimes, but that went unnoticed. The more appropriate question is, whose job is it exactly to notice, and importantly, take action.]]>
New media, in particular the shift from Web 3.0 to Web 4.0, or what is sometimes called the Semantic Web, is one example. As the security of mobile devices and digital financial instruments has become more sophisticated as a result of smartphones, banking, and electronic commerce all being better integrated, scams that were designed for the early days of the Internet and wireless technologies like skimming, phishing, 419 frauds, and the like have become somewhat outdated. The most common of these was likely the advanced fee scam.
Everyone has at some point received an advanced fee scam email. They are much less frequent today because spam traps and firewalls are much better at identifying suspicious messages and blacklisting certain users and servers, but some still manage to get through. If you have ever posted an ad to Kijiji or similar sites advertising homes or apartments for rent, you will likely have seen some variation of the advanced fee scam as a response to that same ad from any number of the scammers who troll Internet classifieds and commerce sites whilst preying on vulnerable targets.
A typical advanced fee scam explains, usually in broken English replete with punctuation and grammatical errors, that you—by sheer luck—have been selected at random to be one of the beneficiaries of an unclaimed estate, inheritance, endowment, or some of other pile of loot that has been sitting idle or in escrow for years and now needs to be liquidated and dispersed internationally. The email’s author typically purports to be either a lawyer or some other executor of the estate in question, or in some cases a government or embassy employee representing some obscure country, republic, or kingdom. Regardless of the backstory (there are endless variations) and who the author claims to be, the scam is always the same: send money to get the money. Once the victim (or what scammers call a ‘mark’) is hooked and sends an initial deposit via wire or etransfer (believing it is required to pay for their share of the legal disbursements) the trap is sprung. From there, the scammers know that most victims will endlessly throw good money after bad rather than face the prospect that they have been duped. A flurry of follow-up emails are then sent, each one asking for “just one more” payment to get the funds released to their bank account. From international tariffs, back taxes, customs fees, escrow fees, and exchange rate commissions, the victim sends a few hundred or thousand dollars here and there, all with the belief that it is a required front-end investment (advanced fee) to get the millions they are actually convinced are waiting for them. Most victims—many of whom are actually high functioning and educated professionals—usually spend their life’s savings before they realize that there never was any money coming their way.
Over the last year or so, people have finally been catching on (albeit slowly) to this ruse and as technology has also improved to block how these scammers send out their bait messages, the con game has evolved. It might be more accurate to say that it has devolved to a more archaic scam, but it is one that is remarkable in terms of what it says about how the pliability of the human condition and how the mind can rationalize poor moral and logical decisions.
The latest incarnation of the advanced fee scam, and which has been rampant across Ontario—and Canada—in recent months is what is known as the “Black Money” scam. Like any advanced fee scam, it requires that the mark pay up front for the guarantee of a bigger return. Like the email scam before it, the Black Money scam also uses the intrigue of the cash being of a vague, somewhat mysterious foreign origin as part of its hook. In this scam, the mark is approached in person—usually through a referral—and shown a briefcase, safe, or trunk full of thousands of pieces of black paper. This “money” is usually nothing more than black construction paper cut to meet the dimensions of bank notes. The money, as is explained, has been intentionally dyed black to camouflage it, so as to not show up on x-ray, be detected by dogs, be identified by customs inspectors, or for some other nefarious purpose (again, the list is endless). The reason for this is that the money is inherently dirty; not only in appearance but in origin. The explanation typically provided is that the money is either the proceeds of crime, the profits of a collapsed drug trafficking operation, blood diamond payoffs, a Mafia money train, the remnants of some Nazi trust fund concealed in a Swiss bank, the sum of various ransom and extortion payments to bikers and gangsters, the haul from a high-end bank robbery, or is otherwise undeclared, pillaged, stolen or ill-gotten in nature. Regardless of where the money is purported to have originated, the explanation is that the funds need to be quickly unloaded to someone “low risk” who can launder it and get it back into circulation. This is in part why small business owners and service industry workers rank amongst the most coveted, and easiest marks.
The conman will then, like some Avon rep, infomercial shill, or the ShamWow guy, demonstrate how the custom “cleaning kit” can restore the cash to its original condition so the bills can be spent or saved as the buyer’s heart desires. Upon being prompted, the mark then selects a “bill” from the pile at random and, using a timeless slight-of-hand trick, the scammer then switches the random piece of construction paper selected for a real $100 bill that has been coated in wood glue and charcoal, or some other crude concoction that mimics the blackness of the other papers. Then, employing a “secret solvent” that in some cases has proven to be nothing more than soda water mixed with food colouring, the scammer dissolves the black coating in a matter of seconds to reveal the genuine bank note. The mark, believing that this same elementary process can convert the thousands of other pieces of paper into $100 bills, then agrees to pay the up-front fee—usually a few thousand dollars—for the pile of black money and the conversion kit containing the solvent. Once the scammer is in the wind, the mark realizes that the black money is nothing more than useless scraps of paper and that the “secret solvent” is little more than the modern equivalent of the magic bean fraud of the Middle Ages. The premise sounds truly absurd but, remarkably, it works time and again – and there is a reason why. There is also a reason why more and more of these conmen are getting away with it.
The conventional advanced fee scam targeted victims at random, with fraudsters sending out mass spam emails hoping for a handful of replies from gullible, naïve, or idealistic respondents. The scam worked for a brief period because it appealed to people’s sense of good fortune—their belief in luck, fate, serendipity, and other pseudo-spiritual concepts that people like to cling to in the face of uncertainty. People were willing to believe that, as strange and unlikely as it seemed, the Fates were smiling upon them, the stars had aligned, and that because they had the same surname as someone named in a wealthy magistrate’s will, or because their Yahoo email address was selected by a random number generator in sub-Saharan Africa, that they would be rich. Some believed this with such zeal that they re-mortgaged their homes or borrowed money from relatives—who also believed the same thing—to pay the advanced fee to get “their” money.
Black Money is much different. Not only is the scam analogue as opposed to digital, but it involves a much riskier personal interaction complete with rehearsed demonstration, much like in the tradition of the travelling snake oil or elixir salesmen of the Old West. Most importantly, the moral character of the mark and their ability to rationalize what they are buying is much different and, like the money they are acquiring, much darker. While victims duped by the advanced fee email scam are inarguably naïve and trusting, the Black Money victims are, even if unknowingly, entering into a criminal enterprise through their willingness to receive and “clean” the tainted cash – even if the cash and story that comes with it are pure fiction. The fact that money has an illegal and even murderous history, as well as a covert global itinerary, is part of what makes the story so believable and exciting, and part of what gets the mark to take the bait. If the money was blackened from soot, rot, or paint, and it had occurred by accident, the ruse would not have the same imaginative traction and romanticism. The fact that the money has been disguised to avoid detection and seizure by authorities makes the story more plausible, the conman more convincing, and the investment seem more promising. There are fewer and fewer people who believe in luck and good fortune, but people will always believe that crime pays—and most want in.
Criminologists and psychologists call it the 10/10/80 rule: 10% of people, when presented with an opportunity to steal something with no risk of being caught, will steal every time; 10% of people will never steal under any circumstance; the other 80% – m’eh… depends on their mood. The Black Money scam taps into this fickle morality of most everyday people with fascinating results and startling efficiancy, exposing the opportunistic impulses and contradictory moral nature of humanity better than any clinical researcher could ever hope to. Most of the victims of this scam are not overtly “bad” people, yet their ethics, sense of fairness, and moral compass all seem to very quickly cave under the weight of their own greed. Not only greed mind you, but also their sweet tooth for impulsivity, the desire for attention and notoriety, the convenience of easy money, and the enthrallment of being connected to something bigger than they are, even if it’s a transcontinental criminal syndicate with dead bodies left in its wake. It is for this same reason that people hosed by the Black Money scam seldom come forward to the police report it; they quickly realize that they have incriminated themselves by agreeing to acquire the cash in the first place – cash they were aware was illegal to possess from the outset. They know that even if they are not locked up for doing this, they will have zero credibility as genuine “victims” in the eyes of the law. This is a detail not lost on the architects of the scam, with the more gory, dramatic, and illegal the story behind the money, the quicker the ensuing hook and subsequent payment. This is not only a key element of the sales pitch, but also a failsafe that the conmen know will inevitably keep a victim’s mouth shut. Indeed, shame is typically a more powerful deterrent to going to the authorities than intimidation.
The last Black Money scammers to be arrested here got busted because they failed to keep one thing in mind. Sometimes the second set of that 10% of people—the ones who will never steal—can turn out to be as calculating as the conmen themselves – perhaps more so. After agreeing to a demonstration of the so-called cleaning kit at his workplace, the mark scammed the scammers into entering a rear stock room with only one way out. Once inside and the staged demonstration began, the mark locked the conmen and their black money in the freezer after barricading the only door. He then called police who found them and all the necessary evidence preserved inside. The human conscience is predictably frail and impressionable, neither wholly black nor white, but somewhere in the ether, somewhere in the grey. Often, it takes something as ridiculous as the premise of black money, like fool’s gold before it, to remind us of such inevitabilities, such inconvenient truths. That said, sometimes people – even a mark looking to verify that crime does really pay, only to then opt out – can surprise you.]]>
The shooting at theater 9 at the Century 16 cineplex in Aurora Colorado, just minutes into the much hyped midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises has—in what would seem has emerged as the age of the mass shooting and spree killing—eclipsed even the San Ysidro McDonald’s massacre of 1984 in terms of the depth of grief and anger. As the details emerge about the exact MO of the deranged gunman and his arsenal of weapons, anti-social disposition, floundering academic career, and possible motives—if any—the stories of the victims it would seem are, in a rare departure from conventional crime reporting, also getting a lot of ink. This is in part because our ability to empathize, versus sympathize, with these victims is enhanced by the context of the killings. It is in part because of this context, regardless of where we live or what we do, that this crime will inevitably feel too close to home for most.
As the film’s director Christopher Nolan described in a poignant and tactful public statement upon receiving news of the mass murder:
‘I would not presume to know anything of the victims of the crime but that they were there last night to watch a movie…an important and joyful pastime. The movie theatre is my home and the idea that someone would violate that innocent and hopeful place in such an unbearably savage way is devastating.’
Nolan’s description of the movie theatre as an ‘innocent and hopeful place’ is very much apropos of the unsettlingly personal nature of this crime. Notwithstanding the fact that it may end up being the worst mass shooting in US history, beyond the grim numbers lies much broader implications for the collective psyche of society at large. Movies are inextricably tied to the very social fabric of our culture. Movies are not just a form of escape and entertainment, they serve as important rites of passage in life; movies are where we take our kids, friends, spouses, and first dates, where we celebrate milestones, where we go to reminisce, reflect, and be inspired.
The movie theatre, by extension, as the tangible place where we watch a story unfold, seated beside both loved ones and strangers alike, offers an experiential dimension to movies that intensifies their meaning—a place where people from all walks of life come together and become communities unto themselves. As Nolan describes, there is something very much ‘innocent,’ perhaps even sacred about this phenomenon. Any public shooting is horrific, senseless, and outraging. The thought of such a cold and calculated ambush targeting people—couples young and old, fans in costume idealistically clinging to their childhood memories, military servicemen taking a much-deserved respite, and, most horrifically, children there to affirm their faith in superheroes saving the day—in this sanctuary is nothing short of emotionally and culturally scarring.
The stories of the victims and their anticipation to see the film, their celebratory mood ahead of attending the screening as described in their final social media posts, and the people they chose to share the experience with are all things we can relate to on a personal and emotional level, and allow us to picture ourselves actually being there. Everyone of the hundreds of millions of movie-goers intending to see this film—any film—or anyone who has ever saved a ticket stub, bought a souvenir, lined-up for an opening night premiere, or who, like Nolan, has ever called the movie theatre home, has had something taken from them through this tragedy.
In spite of the cache of military weapons used, including aerosol weapons, the tactical attire of the shooter—a gaunt looking grad school dropout and involuntary celibate whose name I won’t even mention—and the explosive-laden death trap left at his apartment, the FBI was quick to re-assure the public that this was notan act of terrorism. While perhaps not fitting the post-9/11 definition of terrorism per se, or the narrowly delineated public understanding of terrorism as having a discernible political or ideological agenda, the reality is that this was without question an act of terror in terms of how it has affected us psychologically. That said, like all acts of terrorism, we must respond to it like we do any other terrorist act, and resolve to not let it define us or change our daily lives. Easier said than done.
With such resolutions in mind, the fact that this tragedy unfolded at the screening of a Batman film—perhaps the most anticipated film of all time and featuring the most relatable and admirable of fictional heroes—should not go unnoted. While the shooter purporting to be the Joker is more likely to be a convenient and cowardly way of either deferring personal responsibility, or rehearsing an insanity defense than it is evidence of any real link between motive and the Batman franchise, we can look to The Dark Knight Rises as both the site of a tragedy and a cipher for how to respond to it—how to try and make sense of it and not have our faith in people and our way of life undermined.
As one fan in New York City commented to Reuters, if there is anything this film accomplishes—all of the trilogy’s films for that matter—it is to inspire good in people, not evil. The films are designed to prompt people to close ranks, set aside differences, and fight crime, not succumb to it. The historical origins of the Batman character certainly indicate that as a cultural archetype, this has been its purpose from inception. Like in Nolan’s films, Batman is less a person as much as he is a persona, an elusive symbol. Even if felled in action, that symbol lives on in other people who pick up the cause and carry forward.
Thus, as we continue to reel from the events of July 20, 2012, consider the origins of Batman as a character introduced in Detective Comics #27 in May 1939. At the precipice of global war and in uncertain and tragic times, the introduction of [The] Batman reflected the need for a hero in a turbulent era. Conceptualized as a regular human, who though the will to act where others would not, he would be poised to become more than any detective, more than any man for that matter, and could fight injustice on a whole new level. The Batman would in short order become a symbol that Americans—and the people of the world—would look to and draw inspiration from as the horrors and atrocities of WWII came to the fore, and soon transcended the Detective Comics line to become a global multimedia phenomenon all his own. Since then, Gotham City—as a metaphorical and allegorical New York City—has similarly relied on the Batman lore to pull itself up during periods of social unrest and tragedy. During Mayor Giuliani’s reforms of the 1990s, for instance, the re-branding of the expanded and professionalized NYPD as ‘crime fighters’ in various media campaigns proved to be a morale boost for both the department and the recovering city, as the connection—even if only semantic—between New York City and the Gotham City home to Batman seemed to make heroes something worth believing in again.
In the wake of this horrific shooting, the social construct of a Batman—a Dark Knight—as a hero who is not a specific entity but an idea, should serve as the inspiration for how we must overcome this tragedy and how, like the film that served as the stage for such real life horror, the good guys must prevail. The stories of individual acts of heroism by regular everyday people during this incident are both sadly ironic but also inspiring given the film’s larger message. It is one that the victims of this crime believed in when they sat down in their seats that night—the will to act in the face of fear. These are the stories that must be told as news of the shooting continues to unfold: the ticket holders, some as young as high school students, who risked and in at least one case sacrificed their own lives to help a stranger out of the auditorium; the police officers who were at the scene in less than 90 seconds and ran into theater 9 against a tide of fleeing and horrified moviegoers to face uncertain danger; and the citizens of Aurora who have been galvanized in the wake of the massacre, rallying behind the victims, their community, and their emergency services who continue to work tirelessly to preserve evidence in this case. These are the people whose actions will ensure that these victims did not die in vain, living reminders that such unthinkable acts will always prompt the good people into action.
The fact that this tragedy occurred not only with the sanctuary of the movie theater, but in a theater screening a film whose message was played out in real-life within just minutes of the opening frame, is no coincidence. The sicko freak and social pariah who carried out this massacre no doubt targeted the midnight screening to maximize casualties, knowing full well that the auditorium would be sold out and the audience members immersed in the fantasy of the film and even more vulnerable and slow to react. The fact that the shooter also rigged his apartment to detonate and kill all of its other inhabitants, neighbors, and any first responders attending there speaks to the fact that mass murder for mass murder’s sake, and not this film, is what inspired him. What needs to inspire others is that this all happened during the innagural screening of a film about redemption and overcoming adversity. The victims who were there that night believed in the principles of justice imparted and extolled by The Dark Knight Rises and we owe it to them to maintain our belief in these principles as well.
Those who talk of boycotting the film in the wake of the shooting have a point—it would be difficult to watch the opening few scenes knowing that they foreshadowed a real life fate far more horrific for those who happened to be in theatre 9, and who spent their final moments watching those same frames go by, totally unaware of what was about to happen. A decision to see the film now, later, or ever will be a personal one that filmgoers will have to make on their own. However, I think we can look to the parallels between the film’s message and the brave and selfless actions of those who prevented this tragedy from being worse. They are actions that define why we go to the movies in the first place. They are actions that serve as evidence that the construct, whether real or illusory, of a Dark Knight—a superhero as simply an ordinary person doing extraordinary things—is more important, more meaningful and provocative now than ever.]]>
As each girl began to worsen, the total number of cases seemed to snowball as her peers, neighbors, and classmates began to adopt the same behaviors until such time as it was thought—mostly by their parents—that there was some kind of isolated epidemic emerging. Theories as to its etiology ranged from water contamination stemming from a chemical spill as far back as the 1970s, to generalized environmental pollution, to biological warfare, to some sort of pervasive autoimmune or streptococcal illness that was the genesis of a global pandemic. It was ultimately determined, however, that each patient was succumbing with progressively rapid onset to what is known in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fourth Edition (DSM IV)—the multigenerational Bible of psychopathology—as conversion disorder. As the diagnosis suggests, “conversion” refers to the physiological manifestation of existing mental and psychological disorders in a patient, or the mental being converted into the physical. Examples frequently include but are not limited to fainting spells, catatonia, and, like in this latest case, ticks, spasms, and involuntary utterances. The fact that this outbreak occurred in a small and somewhat socially isolated town, where delineating one’s identity as a teen or young adult—an already daunting task riddled with existentialist angst—is exacerbated by an increasing awareness of one’s apparent irrelevance in world, should therefore not be surprising. Keep in mind that small towns and rural and agrarian centers remain the locales where the incidence of suicide amongst all age groups, for some of these same reasons, remains statistically most prevalent. The fact that all of these cases presented as being contemporaneous additionally points to larger social issues not only in Le Roy, but across the West generally. I’m going to suggest here that some additional parallels can therefore be drawn between this case and the group dynamics and criminal ecology of anti-social female cliques where conversion disorder has historically manifested itself in the form of much more virulent (socially speaking) conduct that has equally significant consequences.
Conversion disorder, like any psychological setback, is not contagious in the conventional cellular, or biological sense. This latest case study is however emblematic of conversion disorder fitting within the rubric of the subconsciously contagious phenomenon known as a Mass Sociogenic Illness (MSI). Typically occurring in an identifiable social group over a quantifiable timeline and not otherwise accounted for by some other physiological variable, common psycho-somatic symptoms of an MSI are capable of being transmitted by peer pressure and mimesis rather than tradition routes of infection. In isolated communities—small agrarian towns like Le Roy, boarding schools, encampments, prison populations et al—one person’s stress-induced histrionics and attention-seeking tactics become another’s muse: their pre-emptive validation for indulging in abnormal and anti-social behavior, or to adopt similar traits as one of either ensuring belonging or mitigating, through this same conversion process, their own existing psychological issues.
The fact that both the documented cases of conversion-related disorders and occurrences of MSI are disproportionately represented by young female patients according to the relevant literature speaks to a number of issues faced by teen girls not only today, but for centuries. These range from the stresses of acceptance and accompanying body image and self-worth issues, to the unique group dynamics of female social circles, including the fact that females during their formative years tend to be highly ideological and territorial as compared to males; their often clinging to the modalities of social tribalism and even what might be described as a doctrine of isolationism, with any alliances beyond the immediate group typically being secretive in nature. Artistically dubious but still culturally relevant films such as Heathers (1989) andMean Girls (2004) underscore the powerful psychological influence that high school female cliques ultimately have on individuality and autonomy with startling clinical accuracy. Aside from these filmic references and their narrative arcs intersecting with the current fiasco and ensuing moral panic in Le Roy, there are in fact more infamous incidents in the annals of criminal justice that likely warrant re-examination through the lens of the MSI phenomenon as we presently understand it.
Located a little over 400 miles from Le Roy (which astoundingly also happens to be home to the Jell-O Museum) is the equally austere and sequestered town of Salem, Massachusetts which should certainly ring a bell in the context of epidemics encompassing manic and allegedly contagious misbehavior by young women. Beginning in 1692 (though actually “symptoms” were first documented in 1691) inexplicable hysterics, spasms, and speaking with strange twitches and in bizarre tongues was thought to be the work of “the Devil’s hand.” While credible theories suggest that some of the preliminary 1691 cases were biological and environmental in origin, stemming from toxins spread by a rare fungus found in the surrounding forests, what likely began as a form of conversion disrorder followed by an MSI eventually led local puritans to believe that Satanic possessions and witchcraft (the proverbial chemical spill of the day I suppose) had descended on to their small God fearing town. In the end, over 185 citizens were named as witches or witch conspirators, and of those condemned, 19 were executed by either hanging or crushing. One man, said to be covering for and thus enabling the evil designs of at least one of the young women, also died during the use of experimental “interrogation” techniques, while many of the other 100 or so who spent years languishing in prison also died there. Historians and gothic criminologists point to the fact that the emergence of the “symptoms” of witchcraft and demonic control emerged during female bonding rituals and seemed to be most prevalent when the girls were either in groups or subsumed in the public spectacle of the open courtroom, where common sense and due process could both be readily sublimated by the pageantry of good theatre. While some were no doubt fakers, liars, and charlatans looking to have their rivals persecuted, or simply to get in on the high stakes action, the Salem witch scare remains a watershed of collective mimesis amongst adolescent females in a criminal context.
Consider then the events that led to another watershed panic in Canada on the night of November 14, 1997. That night, a cabal of 6 psychopathic teen girls known in the media as “The Shoreline Six”—their true identities protected under the legislation of what was then the Young Offender’s Act—lured fourteen-year-old Reena Virk to an area near the Craigflower Bridge on Vancouver Island under the auspice of sharing some beer and cigarettes. Their precise motive for luring the shy and ostracized Virk there, or for what happened next, has never been fully understood but has been the subject of great debate, speculation, and innuendo. After swarming Virk and punching and stomping her repeatedly, she was tortured with lit cigarettes while attempts were actually made to set her on fire. Eventually a 15-year-old named Kelly Ellard and a male hanger-on named Warren Glowatski held Virk under the shallow water at ebb tide until she drowned—her remains not being discovered for nearly another two weeks. The case, solemnized in the Globe & Mail as a “national tragedy,” proved cause for an unprecedented Canadian moral panic and national discourse about social decay and mob violence amongst teenaged girls. Both Ellard and Glowatski were ultimately sentenced the life in prison for first degree murder, the former having her case make it all the way up to the Supreme Court, and the latter having already been paroled as of 2010.
While Virk’s case has been the focus of much debate by academics, activists, artists, and journalists, it is important to note that during this same period (1988 to 1998 to be exact) Statistics Canada identified adolescent females as being the fastest growing violent crime group in Canada. With records confirming an overall increase of 127% over the decade, as compared to an increase of 65% amongst their male counterparts within the same age range, and compared to an increase of just 6% amongst all offenders over the age of 18, questions as to why abounded. As of 2008, the song remains the same. That year, Statistics Canada confirmed that aggregate data collected from law enforcement across the country by its subsidiary Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics (CCJS) showed that adolescents arrested and charged with murder was at its highest point since current record keeping practices in this category began in 1961. More significantly, as adolescent female offenders arrested and charged with violent crimes continues to climb, teen girls as of 2009 were found to outnumber adult females in most crime categories by nearly 300% on average. While crime statistics should always been taken with a grain of salt for a disparity of reasons, most of which are timeworn and too daunting to try and index here, they are nonetheless representative, in a multidisciplinary context, of broader social trends (aka the Chicago School model of criminology) that bring us back once again to Le Roy, New York last week.
MSI events are still only half-understood. While there is some evidence that there may be an evolutionary advantage to adopt some MSI traits in cases of extreme hardship or environmental volatility, and that all modern Western customs and etiquette may have at some point been transmitted as “normal” conduct through mass social mimesis, the acute, systemic adoption of psychopathological and anti-social behaviors in the age of the flash mob is frightening to say the least. That said, an MSI event—whether manifested as ticks, demonic fugue states, or sadistic beatings and burnings—is not the work of a mob per se. The research done on mob dynamics stresses the power of the mob to absorb individuals as part of an amorphous collective where the group assumes a composite personality and will to power, and where the individual is then ultimately anonymized. MSI events, however, are distinctly about retaining the sovereignty and celebrity of the individual—demarcating and distinguishing oneself as being as independently cool or daring as their peers. This performative process is at the heart of any model of criminal ecology where all individuals coexist independently but symbiotically with their environment and other individuals, and is the part of the reason why the Chicago School model (and by extension the Social Learning model) needs to be understood as the new criminology. It is a binary school of criminology not mired by the junk science of crime stats, but by a holistic and multi-disciplinary understanding of crime not only as a thing but as a complex cultural process that reflects both social strain and rational free will at once. From Mean Girls to MSI events, rural whackos to witches, all of these events are connected as part of a larger phenomenon that transcends time and space, and is much bigger than the town of Le Roy and its viral rise to Internet notoriety.]]>
Swiftly arrested and charged with domestic assault, Vincent Godoy toggled back and forth between convictions and acquittals as the case made its way through the glacially-paced appeals process all the way up to the highest level—the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa—where in 1999 the accused’s lawyers argued that their appeal should be upheld as the entry, and subsequent arrest of Godoy, were both unlawful. They contended that the police had no right to enter the “castle” of a sovereign citizen based simply on an interpretative phone call made to a third party—the 911 call taker. Ultimately, the Supreme Court held, in a ruling that has since immortalized Godoy’s name in Canadian case law, that the police had not only the right, but a professional and ethical obligation to enter the residence using all necessary force to determine: a) the welfare of those inside, and b) who made the call and the purpose for the call, whether intentional or accidental.
But change was already on the horizon and ensured that by the time the Godoy decision became part of the law enforcement training curricula across Canada, the death knell of the home telephone had been sounded. At the same time the Supreme Court was pondering the actions of the officers in this case and the role of the conventional telephone in providing police with expanded powers in circumventing the privacy rights of citizens, mobile phone sales in Canada—and the world—were skyrocketing. By the end of 1999 over half of the UK owned a mobile phone while in Canada, the advent of the Bell Solo pay-as-you-go plan and the release of the first BlackBerry device as the progenitor of modern smartphones would change the telecommunications market—and culture—more quickly and more significantly than the police or courts could ever have fathomed.
Fast-forward to 2011, when the Toronto Police Service received just over 107,000 anonymous “open line” 911 calls via so-called “pocket dials.” Pocket dial incidents, or the inadvertent dialing of 911 by unintentional contact with the keypad, have been increasing commensurate with sales of 3G phones and smartphones, particularly after the demise of flip-phones (R.I.P. the RAZR, CRAZR, et al.) whose once sexy and now archaic designs ensured the keypad was concealed once stowed. The causal link between the streamlined design and modularity of mobile devices, and the incidence of pocket dials posing a massive drain on police resources and comprising public safety by tying up 911 operators—and designated emergency lines—has actually changed the way calls to police are statistically coded in a number of jurisdictions.
In some locations, these calls are actually logged and a file opened for reporting to the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics (CCJS), not unlike how real crimes are tabulated and used to populate local, regional, and national crime databases, in turn backfilling the crime stats everyone loves to read like they’re gospel. In fact, some cities have applied for, and received, designated reporting criteria through Uniform Crime Report codes (UCRs) regulated by the CCJS that use a specific alphanumeric cipher for reporting identifiable events to StatsCan. In these cases, “Pocket Dial” occurrences now warrant their own reporting category not unlike “Robbery,” “Hit and Run,” and “Sexual Assault” all have their own UCR codes and categories. The bottom line is that pocket dials are so prevalent, and so dramatically outnumber any other single type of call to police, that they are effectively changing the data landscape of crime statistics in Canada and elsewhere, as well as the technological infrastructure of police services and both their communications and crime cataloguing policies.
Unlike in the Godoy case, however, the pocket dial is an “unknown trouble” call that cannot be immediately isolated to a specific location, nor distinguished from a real emergency where the caller is unable to speak, as in the circumstances of Mrs. Godoy. This is the case until at least such time as the police dispatcher calls back the number to confirm the nature of the call, and typically (if the dispatcher is lucky) after several minutes of idle, open line dead air, but usually after listening to an entire commercial free set on some garbage R&B or top 40 radio station, or after listening to the caller talk to themselves for minutes on end. In some circumstances it may even require pinging the phone through the wireless provider in order to ascertain an approximate location. After then having to dispatch officers to investigative the origin and veracity of the call, those uniforms responding more often than not find a bemused and unapologetic driver who, the one and only time they weren’t texting while driving, happened to dial 911 by proxy once the phone was carelessly tossed into their coat pocket or purse. In most cases, this is not a swift and seamless process, and the convoluted and time-consuming ordeal associated with this type of anti-climatic closure will, with rare exception, hemorrhage both internal and external police resources, often during peak times.
The transition from landline to mobile device as people’s main telephonic utility over a comparatively compressed timeline in the history of communications technologies has ensured that the obligations of the police in investigating the source of anonymous open air 911 calls as decided by the Supreme Court in 1999 are now an overwhelming burden. There is no expanded power or tactical latitude of any investigative benefit, and yet all of the requirements in terms of confirming the purpose for the call and welfare of the caller remain intact. The manner in which unintentional—or reckless—pocket dials to police so drastically outnumber the number of genuine, anonymous 911 distress calls from mobile devices warranting follow-up suggests that the current state of affairs is ripe for a critical incident that will ultimately end up rewriting case law—meaning someone will usually have to die before lawmakers and the courts recognize that police service delivery models and adequacy standards are being undermined by this issue. By way of comparison, the number of bogus 911 pocket dialled calls to the Toronto Police alone in 2011 outnumber the total number of all 911 calls to police in all but a few Canadian municipalities with populations under 500,000 residents that same year. This is more than a nuisance. An intentionally bogus 911 to police is, and has been since day one, a serious criminal offence often resulting in custodial sentences (jail) as a result of their ability to summarily jeopardize both public and officer safety. With this in mind, we now need to question, in light of the resources, money, and time being squandered – and at the expense of both officer and public safety no less – whether being wilfully negligent and reckless in calling 911 needlessly can, like a number of other crimes on the books, fall within the spectrum of criminal intent as broadly defined.
In early 2012, upon releasing their pocket dial stats from 2011, the Toronto Police urged citizens to try and address the problem by calling back as soon as practicable to confirm the call was indeed accidental, or to remain on the line and speak with the dispatcher rather than simply hanging up when finally getting around to noticing that the line to the police is open, and had been for some time. Other critics, including those affiliated with police services, have blamed the role of haptics (the interface of the actual touching process in communications processes) and have deferred to suggesting technological solutions. These suggestions include their recommending that the keypad be kept locked or the phone powered down, other than when it is actually in use. Given that a large number of 911 pocket dials are received while the phone is stowed inside a motor vehicle—where the use of wireless handheld devices is already prohibited in most areas of the Western world—this would certainly seem logical. The reality is that neither “solution” really addresses the root problem, however, which is neither the 911 calls nor the design of the phones, but the mobile phone users themselves.
All mobile phones can and must be capable or dialing 911, even phones with no existing wireless plan. In Canada, the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) necessities it as part of tower licensing agreements. This is in part why women’s shelters and other social services implore people to donate their old, deactivated cell phones; it is an initiative that allows them to be re-distributed for use in the case of emergency by those deemed vulnerable, but who may not otherwise be able to procure a phone of their own or qualify for a wireless service contract. All 3G and GSM smartphones now also come with emergency numbers preloaded to recognize location so that the local version will be dialled even if the wrong number or exchange is entered (e.g: dialing 999 on a British cell phone in Canada will convert it to 911 and default to the local police communications centre which administrates the service). What mobile phones don’t require is that 911 or other emergency numbers be hotkeyed. While a definitive study of Canadian pocket dial stats requires expansion beyond merely tabulating the cases by UCR code—including collecting geographic and demographic information on the usual suspects—the reality is that this is very much emblematic of a broader cultural phenomenon, and is not merely a police or emergency services issue.
The idea that 911 or the police need to be indexed via preprogrammed hotkey as a “contact” in one’s phone is little more than a product of a merit badge-obsessed, instant gratification-dependent culture where people and experiences are to be collected as part of socialized debit-credit system. Traditional landline telephones historically allowed for the pre-programming of police, fire, and ambulance contact numbers, but were intended for rural regions that were latecomers with respect to acquiring an automated 911 system, and which still often relied on separate numbers for each emergency service typically contracted privately through the region or county, including volunteer services. Today, in urban areas and in the case of mobile devices, to actually program 911 to be dialed via hotkey or keyboard shortcut is not only ridiculous but dangerous. If one actually needed to contact the police—or any emergency service—under stress or duress, the loss of fine motor skills accompanying such an incident would actually make the unnecessary number of actions required to remember, locate, and access the correct key far more difficult and time-consuming than simply dialing 911 manually using gross motor skills and simple muscle memory (ie: we should all know the number by now). More importantly, indexing “911” as an entity in one’s list of contacts is—like amassing anonymous, and typically fictional Facebook “friends”—little more than an exercise in false self-affirmation whereby one increasingly needs to define themselves by inflated, fallacious numbers with no context.
The next time you’re in public—a waiting room, a store, a bar, a subway car, wherever—take a look at the way the people (or the clueless, soulless followers Ayn Rand called ‘second handers’) around you cling to their phones like security blankets and as a means of opting out of social interaction, lest they look alone, vulnerable, unoccupied, or worse yet, unimportant. Look at the way they compulsively flip through their apps and inboxes, most of them not actually engaged in anything productive or useful but merely pantomiming and indulging in social performances. By scanning previously viewed messages, scrolling through stale contacts, flipping between screens as though reading intently but not actually focusing on anything, the smartphone has supplanted the oral fixation once satisfied by cigarettes to become not merely a socially acceptable diversion, but a vehicle for temporary self-exile and a means of distracting oneself from the uncertainty of their immediate environment. This charade of self-importance and popularity, and the general Charlatanism engendered by the media convergence and wilful distractibility afforded by the smartphone is ultimately at the root of the pocket dial epidemic. It is in fact little more than the most tangible example of a larger epidemic of social dysfunction and delusion where two dimensional screens and one dimensional people are now the norm. The stockpiling of phony contact numbers to peruse at random when in mixed company, and the ritualized scrolling and admiring of names and numbers captured in one’s contact list has predictably ensnared 911 as the most convenient of numbers to theoretically justify “needing” in one’s phone. While a laughable and seemingly innocuous trend, the reality is that these sorts of broader social practices on the macro scale begin to inevitably leech into the things in life, both big and small, that really matter. That said, I have no doubt that (my) further research into 911 pocket dials will reveal that, like all malignant drains on police resources, a select minority occupying a select social phylum or group will ultimately be responsible for a disproportionate number of the incidents and their associated costs.
The 911 as “friend” practice is something that I pity in my weaker moments, but enough time has now elapsed and enough attention has been drawn to the issue that we now need to escalate the debate and begin questioning whether those who continue to engage in this practice, knowing that they may end up tying up authorities for minutes or hours on end are perhaps willfully, and even criminally negligent. This is both a legal and epistemological question in terms of defining what is inadvertent versusadvertent behaviour in age of passive respoinsibility and the technologically-determined diffusion of accountability. In other words, is the hotkey issue a mitigating or aggravating circumstance—considering its obvious preventability—as compared to the lunatic or agitator who anonymously calls 911 from a payphone making some bogus allegation for his or her own perverse amusement? In those cases, considerable efforts go into locating the suspect given the egregious nature of the offence and risk to both officers and the public, including at times fingerprinting the pay phone, foraging for video surveillance amongst surrounding businesses, etc. In the case of the pocket dial – over 100,000 of them – we just ask people to just call back and say sorry.
Thoughts? Email me at: email@example.com
More to come…]]>
It’s hard to believe that the CSI franchise has been home schooling viewers with IQs in the double digits for well over a decade now. It therefore shouldn’t be surprising, and yet it still is, that the various series and their lower-rated derivatives (Bones, Numbers, Cold Case, The Mentalist, Criminal Minds, et al.) continue to perpetuate misinformation as well as disinformation (ie: misunderstandings as well as intentionally misleading information) about forensic sciences and police investigative techniques.
Part of the problem is the fact that so-called “experts” representing various on-line diploma mills across the United States and Canada keep emerging as hired guns in trials in order to muddy the waters with jargon and engineer reasonable doubt amongst juries who no doubt find being grown ups and making grown up decisions a daunting challenge. This racket was actually going on during impaired driving trials even before CSI debuted so you might say that the courts had already proved to be nicely fertile for these sorts of antics even before television caught wind of the idea. Lest we forget in this circumstance that the inference of reasonable doubt is fundamentally different than being innocent, and more importantly thatpresumed innocent doesn’t mean probably innocent. If all you needed was basic grounds to arrest a probably innocent person, we would be living in a totalitarian regime. The reality is that most people arrested and charged are guilty – whether or not they are convicted is another story.
Second, the main issue as I see is that academics, journalists, and other plain out half-wit agitators continue to talk about this so-called “CSI Effect” as though it is still some sort of unheard of thing. New potboiler books (garbage that is recklessly edited and then hastily released as mass market paperbacks by either publish-on-demand companies or other dubious presses) still emerge every year on the topic. This, despite the fact that legal practitioners have been discussing the impact of these series, and the compulsive viewership of forensic-themed TV shows in contaminating jury pools and swaying juries during deliberations for nearly a decade now. Set your news aggregator settings to capture these sorts of stories and watch the number of hackneyed features still coming up every week that talk about the “CSI Effect” as though it just came out of the blue, and how forensic television shows confuse facts in issue during trials involving real forensic evidence and how this is the next big public panic. Thanks for the breaking news a generation or so later.
The reality is that the current forensic zeitgeist (prevailing spirit or ideology of an era) doesn’t need to be dismantled but needs to be tweaked enough so that people understand that anything prefaced by a “forensic” qualifier (chemistry, biology, toxicology, anthropology, entomology, zoology, accounting, linguistics, etc.) refers to that specific discipline in the context of the courts. It refers to the manner in which an existing area of expertise is used in the service of a prosecution, litigation, investigation, or engages any element of the court system or judicial process. Forensics is therefore not a “thing” per se but a process by which other disciplines are carried out, assessments made, and reports rendered by people who ultimately need to account for their findings in the light of the court and as a matter of permanent public record. For this reason, and also contrary to the CSI propaganda, rarely if ever is a forensic specialist qualifiable as an expert in more than one area. They also, almost without exception, have other jobs (university professors, lab researchers, independent scholars, antiquarians and curators, etc) but render their expertise as witnesses and consultants (often for free) to serve the interests of justice. Sometimes it is also done for the benefit of their own egos, but this is par for the course given that their reputations are on the line and the cases are usually high stakes and highly publicized. Full-time forensic specialists tend to either be police officers who are relegated to what’s known as forensic identification (fingerprinting, impression matching, evidence collection and collation) or are medical practitioners tasked primarily with post-mortem and autopsy work, or what is known as forensic pathology. The so-called “criminalists” in CSI (one of many made-up terms to whiz slack jawed viewers) are the former (forensic identification specialists) and would not then be doing the actual lab work or DNA analysis as seen on TV. Seldom do they also wear form-fitted leather pants and heels to crime scenes.
This brings us back to where I started: forensic writing. Now that you know what forensic really means take a guess as to what it signifies, and why no one has ever identified it as a field suitable for inclusion in the forensic repertoire recognized by the courts until now. It doesn’t mean the analysis of handwriting if that’s what you’re thinking. Those people are called forensic graphologists, and represent probably the most contentious and least verifiable (I daren’t say credible) area of the forensic specialities. On the contrary, forensic writing refers to how documents are written in the first instance with the expectation that they may or will end up in court now or in future, and in any type of court – criminal, civil, traffic, family, et al. Lawyers do this stuff everyday, but I’m not talking about just drafting documents specifically for a legal purpose from inception. Instead, I’m talking about rethinking, and responding accordingly in terms of style and structure, about who your audience is and where this document, whether analogue or digital, may end up. The reality is that the speed with which information is disseminated in our current digital age has necessitated significant changes with respect to both the style and substance of all documentation scribed by any person is a position of trust, authority, or anyone occupying a management, money-handling, or vulnerable sector position. Persons immersed not only in traditional law enforcement, legal, paralegal, or investigative positions, but professionals from teachers to doctors to bankers now need to continually draft all written materials either directly or indirectly associated with their position – in both hard and soft copy – with the understanding that they may, either though official or unofficial channels, reactive or proactive disclosure, become public documents that are ultimately subject to legal and media scrutiny beyond the confines of their original creation. In other words..in the public sphere, and thus “forensic.”
From original notes in the office or in the field to inter-agency emails, depositions, factums, and even interviews and sworn testimony that are transcribed and committed to written record as part of this same documentary system, forensic writing describes a standardized approach to all institutional writing in a knowledge-based economy. It is both a methodology and a philosophy that ensures a certain consistency, formality, and accountability of language in service to the law at both the procedural and theoretical levels. Binding decisions with respect to full disclosure in criminal cases in Canada alone, including R. v. Askov (SCC 1990) and R. v. Stinchcombe (SCC 1991) increasingly apply to all digital and manual documentation across all fields in our increasingly litigious and informatic culture. These decisions have over time and through corresponding advances in technology, distilled a climate of scrutiny with respect to documents drafted by all persons acting in an official capacity, whether in the law itself or in intersecting disciplines such as medicine, finance, and education, all of whom may constitute ‘justice system participants’ as per the Criminal Code definition.
Forensic writing thus encompasses a set of literary standards that both inform and persuade not only criminal justice professionals, but also a general readership who has elevated expectations about how matters of public interest should be put to written public record. Establishing such standards amongst both the private and public sectors ensures that institutional writing today adopts a ‘worst case scenario’ style, and that it conforms to certain stylistic and semantic conventions in order to insulate documents against public misinterpretation and allegations of subjectivity not only in the context of the law, but amongst laypersons. In an age of Wikileaks, Freedom of Information, digital archiving, citizen journalism, and when unsolicited and unsourced opinions abound, never before has the written document been so perishable in its confidentiality, and at the same time never before has a (potential) justice system participant’s credibility been so summarily defined by the quality of their writing and their documentary pedigree. The result is a need to adopt and advocate a standardized, interdisciplinary prose amongst the disciplines – all disciplines – so that documents created at source can withstand protracted attention and criticism once they become ‘of the forum.’
That’s the abridged version believe it or not. It is also the single, and likely most important component of forensics that you won’t see on TV, but which may actually impact your life more dramatically than anything on screen. The full book is coming soon.]]>