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Sunday, 16 May 2010

Suicide and the Internet

On April 23, G. Paul Beaumaster, Prosecuting Attorney in Rice County Minnesota, filed a complaint against William Francis Melchert-Dinkel, for violation of a Minnesota law that states "Whoever intentionally advises, encourages, or assists another in taking the other's own life may be sentenced to imprisonment for not more than 15 years or to payment of a fine of not more than $30,000, or both."

The complaint details a horrifying story. Melchert-Dinkel, a 47 year old husband, father, and licensed practical nurse, was obsessed with death and suicide. He trolled websites about depression and suicide, and contacted people who were considering suicide, using pseudonyms like "Cami" and Li Dao." He offered information on the best way to kill oneself, and encouraged people to do the act. In the guise of a sympathetic female nurse, "Cami" suggested that the potential suicide would be happier in heaven.

In 2008 "Cami" entered a suicide pact with Nadia Kajouji, an 18 year old student in Canada. Nadia would kill herself by jumping off a bridge. "Cami" would hang herself the next day. Nadia jumped, and died. "Cami" didn't. When the police confronted Melchert-Dinkel he confessed to having encouraged Nadia and scores of others to kill themselves.

I support the Oregon Death with Dignity Act, under which people with terminal illness can obtain prescriptions for lethal overdose, under carefully controlled circumstances. But Melchert-Dinkel's actions have nothing in common with the thoughtful, though still controversial, program in Oregon. Melchert-Dinkel, by his own testimony, was motivated by a perverse fascination with death. He exploited suicidal people the way rapists exploit their victims.

If Melchert-Dinkel wrote essays praising suicide, he would be misguided but within his right to free speech. But encouraging suicidal people to kill themselves is like shouting "fire" in a theater. It's an incitement to action, not a free expression of opinion. I'll be surprised if he does not spend time in prison. He deserves punishment.

I tried to visit suicide chat rooms to see what kinds of interactions occur. But my access via my employment site is blocked for sites labelled "violent." The web has been a godsend for many people with serious ailments, who "meet" others with the same conditions and swap advice and support. Unfortunately, sites like those Melchert-Dinkel preyed on bring together vulnerable people, many of whom suffer from psychiatric illnesses. In U.S. society adults have a "right" to consort with whomever they choose. But the Melchert-Dinkels of the world don't have a right to exploit their penchant for death.

(The complaint against Melchert-Dinkel makes fascinating (though grisly) reading. It's available here.)


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