I’ve always been worried by crazies and fanatics. What really cemented for me that we should oppose and speak up against these kinds of ideas was my experience with James Lee, known as the Discovery Channel Shooter (even though he didn’t shoot anyone).
James was very active on tribe.net as was I for some time, some years ago. Primarily I was involved in the political and skeptical tribes but despite the presence of people like me, tribe.net was always pretty overrun with conspiracy theorists, religious nutters and other people deeply entrenched in ‘woo’.
James didn’t particularly stand out from the other crazies at the time but, looking back, I can see some warning signs that separated him from the other kooks and nutballs on the site. Things that might help others differentiate the genuinely dangerous or at-risk from the trolls, Poes and harmless crazies.
I often wish I’d put more effort into getting through to him, into debunking the nonsense he and others spread there. I see it now, still, all across social media and bullshit spreads much faster than truth or sober thinking. It’s made me treat so many different peculiarities and crazy ideas much more seriously – at least in terms of the harm they can do.
Here’s what – from memory – separated James from the others:
- James’ obsession was singular. While his concerns were environmentalist and extreme the object of his obsession was the Discovery Channel. This made little sense to anyone who talked to him. They weren’t ‘evil’ in his mindset, the problem that he had was that they weren’t doing enough to tackle and promote environmental concerns. He became utterly fixated on them to the exclusion of all others.
- James took his actions into ‘real life’. James wasn’t just a ranting voice on the internet. He tried to organise other people and got more desperate when nobody really followed his lead – despite having his believers and enablers on tribe.net and elsewhere. He picketed their building, he made the transition from shouting and ranting online (everywhere he could) to ‘doing something’.
- James wouldn’t engage. Anything beyond his obsession didn’t seem to exist for him. We would ignore feedback that went beyond the bounds of his beef with Discovery Channel and would angrily and emotionally react to anyone not in agreement with him on that singular focus. He did, however, pay attention to positive feedback which he did get from other crazy – if less crazy – people and peacemakers.
I don’t think we can afford to ignore or tease people like this online. I think they must be confronted with dissenting views and, if necessary, reported and dealt with legally or psychologically as happened with Dave Mabus. Their obsessions and peculiarities are amusing only so long as they don’t tip over the edge and encouraging or enabling them can do just that.
There aren’t ‘two sides’ of equal worth to every story and as skeptics we need to publicly oppose and debunk everything from homeopathy and anti-vax nonsense to religion and 9/11 conspiracies. They’re literally and figuratively poisoning political and social discussion and advancement and they’re leading to tragedies like James Lee.
His actions have been branded those of a terrorist. He was mentally ill. He needed help, he needed to be taken seriously, he needed someone to talk sense and get through to him. He didn’t deserve to be shot.