19 June, 2010


So here's the thing.

I think I may be a monster. I'm worried that I may be a horrible, cruel, unsympathetic person.

Let me explain: this whole thing has arisen out of an episode of the This American Life radio show. I've written in the past about my love for the show, and two years on from writing that post, I remain utterly fascinated by it. I look forward to hearing each new episode, I'm still working my way through the 400-odd episode backlog of the show, and it still hasn't lost its hold on me. I love it, and if you've never heard it, I strongly encourage you to go to the website and just start listening. It's really great.

There's one story in particular that I would encourage you to listen to. It's from episode #363: Enforcers, and the story runs from 5:30 to 35:30 in the episode. So it's a long story (half an hour), but it's worth it. Feel free to go away, listen to it, and then come back.

Okay, so hopefully you've listened to it. If you haven't here's a quick summary. These three guys run this reverse-scam on someone running a Nigerian email scam. The three guys pose as a church, and then when the person running the scam (who incidentally really is Nigerian) asks for money, they tell him that if he travels to the neighbouring country of Chad, the representative from their church's mission will be able to meet him there to give him the money. Now, bear in mind, as far as the scammer knows, he's stealing from a church, taking money that is intended to help the people of the region. So the scammer travels across the border into Chad. But then the church's representative supposedly has difficulties getting to to where the scammer is, so the scammer has to go further to find the representative. And so slowly they draw the guy deeper and deeper into Chad, further and further away from home until finally he's 1400 miles away from home, in a city on the edge of Chad less than 100 miles from war-torn Darfur. In other words, this is a bad situation for the scammer. And then they left him there. For weeks, months even, constantly emailing him "it won't be long" to keep him around in this very dangerous situation. And he was apparently in real danger, but still he waited and waited for his money to come. Eventually the three guys got bored with him, so they emailed him and told him they had heard that his mother was dead. The scammer no doubt had a few moments of horror, but eventually got in contact with his family and discovered it was not true. And so the story ends, the scammer knows he's been played, goes home, and resumes scamming people.

Anyway, I loved that story, I genuinely think it's a fascinating story. In fact I told it to a few friends of mine, none of whom expressed any concerns about the story until I reached the part about the dead mother. Then people tended to speak up - "Oh, that's gone too far, that's not funny at all." Which I don't understand - I mean, I realise that hearing that your mother is dead is not good news, but it's not like she's really dead, and as soon as he gets in contact with his family (which you know became his first priority on receiving the news) he'll discover the lie. But the other thing I don't get is why it's the dead mother story that goes too far. I mean, why didn't my friends say anything when they abandoned the guy in a dangerous town right beside a war-torn country. Now, my friends all claimed that they had been concerned at that point, they just hadn't said anything. Maybe. But it was the dead mother story that prompted them to speak up, which would suggest that they thought that was worse than leaving the guy in Chad to begin with. And that I don't get. I don't see why telling an easily and quickly disproved lie, even one as personal and upsetting as "your mother is dead" is that much worse than putting someone in a life-threatening situation.

Anyway, there a reason why this has come up again, a couple of years after the episode aired. An interview that TAL host Ira Glass recently did has been posted on the show's website, and there's one point in the interview where they ask about instances where someone thinks they'll be the subject of a positive story, and it turns into a negative story. Ira's response?

It was a story we did about those guys who - you know those Nigerian e-mail scammers? There are guys who reverse-scammed those scammers, and a bunch of them got in contact with the radio show, saying "we're doing this really funny reverse-scam against those Nigerian scammers", and the reverse-scam basically involved - they tried to get one of those guys into a war zone in Sudan, and he nearly died, and it wasn't funny at all, and the guys seemed like monsters. But they didn't seem able to tell.

I remembered the show well, and I remember that at the time Ira wasn't entirely impressed with the guys - he clearly felt they had gone too far - but "monsters"? Really? Had the story been that unsympathetic to the reverse-scammers, had they really been presented that badly, and I completely missed it because I was on their side? So I listened to it again, and indeed the reverse-scammers really were presented very negatively, pretty much as monsters - laughing as they read his emails about his difficulties and troubles in Chad. And I missed that, because I had no problem with anything that they did.

Now, it's not like I'm entirely devoid of sympathy. Admittedly I don't have any sympathy for the scammer, nor to be honest do I have any sympathy for the scammer's victims (most of whom are, to be honest, fooled by their own greed). But listening to the story, I felt a lot of sympathy for a lot of people, chiefly the people who have to live in the town normally, whose lives are in this horrible dangerous town. I can't imagine how terrifying it must be to have to spend your life there, knowing that the prospect of a violent death is that close. So I do have sympathy, I just don't feel any sympathy for the scammer. This is a guy who came to the town, and then chose to stay there knowing it was dangerous, because of his own greed. The three guys baiting him didn't force him to stay, they just held out a choice, "our money or your life," and he wanted the money. He could have left at any time, but he chose to stay because he wanted to steal from a church money that was intended to help people. And he made it out alive - I would probably feel differently had he died in this situation, but since he didn't, so I don't need to worry about moral issues about responsibility and can just enjoy the story. So I can't understand why this guy gets any sympathy. Why are the three guys baiting him monsters, am I a monster to being on their side, and why is the thieving bastard trying to steal money intended for charitable purposes not a monster? I honestly can't understand it.

I mean, there's a little coda to the story where the scammer actually manages to do worse than try to steal charitable money from a church. Some time later, the guys are contacted again by the same scammer, and this time they pose as a father with a sick child. At one point, the guys tell the scammer "I need the money for an operation to save the life of my child," and the scammer says "give me your money, and the money you make will pay for the operation." The scammer was actively trying to steal money believing that without that money a child would die. And I don't see any ambiguity about that. That is evil. Pure evil. And from my point of view, someone as evil and hateful as that deserves everything that he went through. Every single moment of terror, of pain, of grief, all deserved. And I find it bizarre that anyone would argue that there is anyone else in the story that deserves the label of "monster". And yet the guy who makes the show that raised the whole issue thinks I'm viewing this story from the entirely wrong point of view.

So this is what I'm grappling with. Who are the monsters in this story, and if it's the three guys (which it seems is the position of both Ira and those friends that I told the story to), then what does it say about me that I am on their side? Does that make me a cruel and unfeeling and vindictive monster because I can't see how terrible they are? I like to think I'm a generally good nice person, and while I occasionally joke about hating all of humanity, I don't think I'm that bad. But who knows, perhaps my grumpy-old-man act isn't as much of an act as I thought it was. Perhaps it's hardened me to the point that I can easily dismiss the suffering of another person with a response of "he deserved it, the end." And the thought of actually being that person scares me.


Ethan Tucker said...

My friend Richard, who you met at drinks in March, did a bit of Nigerian scambaiting a few years ago and turned out to be quite adept at it. His most famous victory was in convincing two or some scammers to have their picture taken with a sign promoting his 'new energy drink'. Cue several cheerful-looking scammers holding a big sign saying "I drink from the Golden Shower". For more in the same vein, see www.419eater.com, which documents the campaign against these crummy types and has some amusing pictures.

Also, when I was perusing the shelves in a Manhattan bookshop (had to get that in there!) I came across the book version of the website Stuff White People Like. Public Radio was one of the entries, and This American Life host Ira Glass was described as a wireless sex symbol and the radio incarnation of Jon Stewart, i.e. all liberal American college-educated white women secretly want to shag him. The online version is amusing too:


Matthew L said...

The whole story was apparently played out on the 419eater forums.

I enjoyed the SWPL link - thanks for that. It's not a bad description of Ira Glass - I can't comment on him as a sex symbol, but he does come across as someone who would be great to have as a friend.

Incidentally, this week's episode of TAL is a rerun of the very first episode I heard, and the first story on the show (which is about the greatest phone message ever) is still one of my favourite stories from the show. If you've never heard it, it's worth listening to - http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/203/recordings-for-someone