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It’s far from a unique experience.
Most front-line members of the media have had run-ins with people with mental health issues in their careers — from interviews that go wildly off the rails when it’s clear the issues involved are less than real, to phone calls that just don’t stop, sometimes disturbing and threatening emails that come in, close to daily and sometimes even hourly, for months.
If you work as a news editor or an assignment editor (I’ve done both over the years), you’ll see more of that — that’s because you’re the gatekeeper, talking to walk-ins or callers even before reporters are assigned to a story.
Some of those incidents stick — especially when someone stops believing you’re part of the solution, and starts thinking you’re part of the problem.
I remember bringing a man to the boardroom at our newspaper so he could fill me in on the details of how he was being harassed by the police.
It started out calmly enough, as he explained how the police were unreasonably following him. How they were constantly watching his apartment. How they were hovering in the air over his bed while he was trying to sleep.
Keep in mind, he was only doing what many people do: going to the media over what he saw as unfair treatment. And that unfair treatment was very real to hm. The fact that I couldn’t help made him even more frustrated, and I get that.
The knife changed things. He took it out of his pocket, flicked its four-inch blade open, and put it flat on the boardroom table between us.
“You can’t be too careful,” he said obliquely, before asking me if I was working for the police.
I started wondering how I was going to get out of the room.
Long story short, I obviously did get out — but from then on, if I did meet with someone in the boardroom, I would sit on the side of the table closest to the door. Often, before I’d bring anyone into the building, I’d meet them at the front desk and sound them out a bit first.
There’s one thing I took away from the experience that startled me: how clearly aware I was that he was not responsible for any of it. He was suffering from issues that were not of his own making, and he was honestly tormented as a result.
So what’s the point? Well, I’ve been following, on and off, a domestic violence case involving two students at Boston College. Alexander Urtula committed suicide by jumping off a parking garage, and his girlfriend has been charged with goading him into jumping — the evidence apparently includes thousands of text messages.
...how carefully we should be examining anyone who thoughtlessly or deliberately incites people without taking into account what the end result of that incitement might cause.
It’s a horrible case, and it’s got me thinking a lot about responsibility, and just how carefully we should be examining anyone who thoughtlessly or deliberately incites people without taking into account what the end result of that incitement might cause.
Would my time in the boardroom have turned out differently if it hadn’t happened years ago, before politicians and others began regularly demonizing the mainstream media as “enemies of the people”? Consider the case of Cesar Seyoc, who mailed pipe bombs to prominent Democrats and the media in the United States. Seyoc’s own lawyers went so far as to argue, “We believe that the president’s rhetoric contributed to Mr. Sayoc’s behavior.”
Whatever might have happened in that boardroom, I’m absolutely unshaken on one point: the man with the knife would not have been criminally responsible.
But I wonder more and more, if it happened now, if there are others who would be.
And whether it’s possible to devise a mechanism that would address that responsibility.
Russell Wangersky’s column appears in SaltWire publications across Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org — Twitter: @wangersky
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