Jewish World Review Feb. 11, 2003 / 9 Adar I, 5763

Leonard Pitts, Jr.

Leonard Pitts, Jr.
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Virtual community failed "Ripper' is no surprise | It has been three weeks since Ripper died, but it didn't make the news until a few days ago.

At first, his death seemed depressingly mundane. Phoenix woman goes into her son's room one afternoon to wake him for work. Finds him dead of an overdose of prescription drugs, marijuana and alcohol.

It wasn't until days later that his family turned on his computer and discovered the really troubling thing about Ripper's death. Which is that he died in a room full of his friends who watched him kill himself while some egged him on.

The transcript from their Internet chatroom reads like the script from a bad stoner movie. "I got a grip of drugs," Ripper said.

To which "%Pnutbot" responded with approving enthusiasm: "Ripper is a gangster!!!"

In the privacy of their chatroom, in the anonymity of their Internet names, in the darkness of predawn, they watched via a camera hooked up to his computer as he popped pills, drank rum and smoked pot. One friend encouraged him to pass out on camera. Another wanted to see his head smack against the wall.

Ripper gave them his cell phone number. "Call if I look dead," he said.

Just another day in the virtual community. You remember the virtual community. It's the one we were promised at the dawn of the Internet Age, the one that would link all humankind in brotherhood, sisterhood and enlightenment.

Of course, similar promises were made on behalf of the telegraph, the radio and the telephone. But the flaw in all the promises was the same. They depended upon our understanding of the social covenant, our ability to recognize that each of us owes something to the rest of us. That's a notoriously fickle thing in which to place one's trust.

So who can be surprised that a virtual community failed Ripper? We've seen the same failure in communities of bricks and mortar for years.

I won't be the first to find in Ripper's suicide an echo of Kitty Genovese's murder. She was killed long before the Internet reached the masses, killed 39 years ago on a quiet, tree-lined street in Queens. Thirty-seven people watched and heard from their apartment windows. Thirty-seven people heard her cry for help as a deranged man with a knife spent half an hour killing her.

Nobody came to her aid. Nobody even called the police.

And afterward, the nation gasped in shock, wondering how such a thing could happen. Wondering how people could be so callous, so cowardly and so cold.

The answer was the same then as it is now. We are different in darkness than we are in light. Under cover of anonymity, in places where no one knows our names, we tend to drop our masks and expose sides of ourselves even we never knew were there.

We forget to strive toward what we imagine ourselves to be. Forget those duties of basic compassion and simple courage that each owes to all.

There's something chilling in the transcript of Ripper's slide into demise. It's as if, for the people watching, he has become something less than real, a video game character performing on command. And when he passes out, some of them have as much compassion as they would for something two-dimensional that existed only on screen.

"He's dead," says "Oea."

"Happy trails," says "Hast."

The panic builds only slowly. Ripper's virtual friends begin to debate calling authorities. At one point, "Oea" does dial 911, asking the room, "Is this the right choice?"

"TheKat" types, "No" ten times.

Oea laughs and reports, "Okay. I talked my way out of it. Didn't give them any info."

"Whatever," says theKat.

Not that it would have made a difference if they had called for help. Ripper's "friends" didn't know who he was. They stood witness to his suicide and didn't even know his name.

Brandon Veda was 21.

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