dirty little secret
on the fires of despair
was just another sticky, hot August afternoon when a man silently
climbed over the handrail and onto the narrow outer ledge of a busy
Portland highway overpass. Below, a steady stream of fully loaded
semi-trailer trucks roared along the highway leaving shivering air
and thick, steady echoes in their wake.
Before long, people began to notice the man on the ledge as he
stared willfully into the flowing traffic beneath his feet. A small
crowd soon formed as police trucks blocked traffic on the overpass.
It is impossible to say for sure weather the man fully intended
on ending his life by jumping headlong into the heavy traffic, or
if it was merely a desperate "cry for help." But like
a good paramedic who treats every injury like a spinal injury, the
authorities did not take any chances with this "jumper."
They acted quickly and stopped traffic in both directions on highway
217 in the area surrounding the incident. Some officers worked on
getting a small number of cars moving on the opposite section of
the overpass, others engaged the man on the ledge in conversation.
Apparently, one of the officers even gave the man a cigarette.
The building in which I work happens to overlook the overpass where
this incident occurred.
When my co-workers first saw the man on the ledge, the office spun
into a mood of eerie restlessness. It was as if someone had dimmed
the lights and some inexplicable force brought people away from
their desks toward the windows. A crowd soon formed as the blinds
turned open to reveal the unfolding drama.
Some people nervously joked about whom the man might be and what
might have brought him to the ledge. Many remained and watched him
smoke his cigarette above an empty highway, surrounded by spinning
police lights. Some were unable to look at all.
But after awhile, the lights on the highway returned to their incandescent
normalness and the energy in the office fizzled. People returned
to their cubicles and continued their humdrum, no fun, everyday,
ordinary work. Life went back to normal.
Later, the muffled roar of the highway revealed the fact that traffic
was again moving and that the man had chosen a way down from the
ledge. When I asked, someone told me that police were able to coax
him to safety, but by that time nobody in our office was watching.
The local papers made no mention of the event and, to my knowledge,
the incident was not covered in any evening news broadcasts.
In spite of the general lack of interest in the event, it was not
without impact. One man, armed only with gravity and altitude had
brought a major portion of Portland's east side to a standstill.
He had threatened not only his life, but the lives of hundreds of
unwitting motorists. He had kidnapped the overpass and taken the
highway hostage. Police mobilized to shut down a heavily trafficked
highway and hundreds, if not thousands, of people were seriously
delayed. Appointments were missed, deadlines postponed, meetings
cancelled. Yet, in spite of all this, not even a single line in
the Oregonian acknowledged the event.
Somehow, I think that if the man had taken hostages and carried
an assault rifle, people in my office would have stuck around to
watch. They might have cowered on the floor like quivering mounds
of flesh, but they'd have watched.
And so would the rest of the nation, which would have watched as
live helicopter news feeds interrupted regularly scheduled programs
with blurry fragmented glimpses of the villain and his hostages.
The fact is, suicide makes bad television. It's our dirty little
secret. It's a problem we can't solve. If you see it on the TV,
you can turn it off. And if it happens on an overpass near your
office, you can just go back to work. People don't want to face
it, and the media makes it easy for us not to.
Oregonians are three times more likely to commit suicide than to
be murdered, according to Oregon Center for Health Statistics. But
I'm willing to bet that Oregonians are 10 times more likely to read
about a murder in the newspaper than they are to read about a suicide.
Yes, some suicides get media attention, but only if the victim
is a rock star or a British government weapons expert are we likely
to hear about it. Even then, those "suicides" often look
much more like murders than willful acts. Occasionally, a fantastic
car chase on an L.A. freeway will turn into an impromptu suicide
and make headlines, but these are exceptions.
The road to suicide is long and hard. If our immediate response
to the despair and depression of others is to shun it like SARS
or monkey pox, perhaps our own disinterest is fuel on the fires