Is Robert Butler Jr. a Digital-Age Kitty Genovese?

Sasha Brown-Worsham

Kitty Genovese

In the digital age, we are just as likely to see a crime happening outside our front door as we are to see it happening on Facebook. The January 5 school shooting tragedy at Millard South High School in Omaha is no exception.

Just before Robert Butler Jr. walked into his school and killed Assistant Principal Vicki Kaspar and severely wounded Principal Curtis Case, he put up a warning on Facebook:

Everybody that used to know me I'm sry but Omaha changed me and (expletive) me up. and the school I attend is even worse ur gonna here about the evil (expletive) I did but that (expletive) school drove me to this. I wont u guys to remember me for who I was b4 this ik. I greatly affected the lives of the families ruined but I'm sorry. goodbye.

Are those who chose to ignore it complicit in Kaspar's death?

The answer, it seems, is more complicated than just a simple yes or no. Yes, someone should have maybe done something, but what? Can you imagine calling the police and saying, "Someone has a Facebook status that alarms me"?

They would get to it when they got to it (if they didn't laugh you off the phone), and by the time they did something, it would be too late. 

Facebook is by its nature kind of vague and weird. When your best Facebook friend has a status update that reads: "Jenni Smith had a bad day," is it because she missed a deadline at work or her spouse died? It's called "vaguebooking" and we are all sometimes guilty of it. It's impossible to say in a couple dozen characters what is really going on with us. Also, certain people just cry wolf.

I have two friends who put up suicidal status updates all the time, and I have emailed another friend asking if we should be concerned. The response is usually more a communal eye roll than one of concern and, sure enough, the next day the person is fine.

Much like the people living in Queens, New York who heard the doomed cries of stabbing victim Kitty Genovese and did nothing to prevent it, are those who read status updates like this and ignore them also complicit in whatever horror follows?

Another recent story like this was the story of Simone Back, a 42-year-old with more than 1,000 Facebook friends, most of whom mocked her when her Christmas Day status read:

Took all my pills be dead soon bye bye everyone.

They called her a liar and made fun of her. Of course they stopped doing so days later when her mother posted this:

My daughter Simone passed away today so please leave her alone now.

According to Facebook, they have a system in place to help potential victims of suicide. The Daily Mail reports:

We have a close working relationship with the Samaritans and have a process in place whereby friends and family who are concerned about someone can report it to us through the help centre, it said. A team of trained professionals are then able to review the case and the Samaritans will make contact with the person at risk.

Vague statements, anyone? Facebook is a bit dangerous in that way because as much as it connects us, it also sort of tears us apart. It makes people we might not otherwise talk to real, but in a virtual way. Their feelings may not feel real to us. So if I see something dramatic from a known drama queen, I will often ignore it. This probably makes me jaded to everyone.

It's a pretty scary world when you can have 1,000 "friends" who know you're in crisis and not a single one to come over to your house to see if you're OK.

Do you think we have a responsibility to Facebook friends?

Image via Facebook

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