Rush to Judgment

There may be more—and less—behind the high-profile news account of a boy's setting himself on fire

When I first heard the story, it went like this: One winter night a thirteen-year-old boy was watching TV with his friends. No adults were in the house. On came a show in which a handsome hipster doused himself with gasoline, set himself afire, and danced around. The hipster was dressed in a protective fireproof suit, but the innocent boy didn't know that. To him it looked as though soaking oneself in gasoline and setting oneself afire were safe and fun. The boy took some gasoline and a lighter into his snowy back yard and tried the stunt himself. He was gruesomely burned from head to toe—a victim of parental neglect, or irresponsible media manipulation, or maybe both.

This was the story of Jason Lind, a teenager in Torrington, Connecticut, who suffered terrible burns on a Friday night in January. The story was misleading and incomplete, but it spread nationwide, because it had all the ingredients of a flashy news item: the image of a burned child, a popular television show, and political and moral controversy.

Now let me tell you a nonstory. These are the facts in the Lind case, as far as I have been able to ascertain them.

At 10:08 p.m. on Friday, January 26, fire fighters were called to a house in Torrington. There they found a small group of teenagers wandering around, some in shock, some giddy, some concerned. In the kitchen they found members of the household tending Jason Lind, whose legs and hands bore second- and third-degree burns.

Jason, an award-winning Little Leaguer partial to skateboards and BMX bikes, had tried a daredevil stunt with fire. When one of the fire fighters asked what had happened, a kid on the scene replied, "They were playing Jackass." When asked what that meant, the kid explained, "MTV, man."

The local police gathered that Jason had begun playing with fire several weeks earlier, possibly inspired by something he had seen on Jackass. One sergeant told The Hartford Courant that Jason had held his boot over gasoline burning in the snow; he had also put gasoline on his boot, ignited it, and then plunged his boot into the snow. Not everyone agreed with these reports. The Lind family's lawyer said that Jason had been involved in only one previous episode with fire.

On that January night Jason and several other kids visited his friends the Fords. Around eight-thirty Mrs. Ford, seeing the youngsters cozily curled in front of the TV with their shoes off, and knowing that there were two eighteen-year-olds among the group, felt comfortable leaving them to go to a friend's house for a cup of coffee.

By ten o'clock Jason had changed into some old pants and a couple of shirts and a sweater. He had put on a motorcycle helmet and an old pair of boots and had gone into the back yard with two friends and a plastic cup of gasoline.

Minutes later Jason was on fire. His pants had been saturated with gasoline and ignited. Some of Jason's friends extinguished the fire and took Jason inside, where they put wet towels on his wounds. Emergency personnel arrived and rushed Jason to a hospital, where, according to The Hartford Courant, he apologized from the emergency-room table.

Sometimes if you know more, things get less clear.

Jackass is MTV's second highest rated show, boasting a cumulative viewership of 39 million. Its host, Johnny Knoxville, is a charmingly dissolute thirty-year-old who leads a pack of skateboarding goofball dudes on expeditions of tasteless pranking and inept stunting. A diver plunges proudly from a ladder into a kiddie pool full of elephant poop. Johnny earns an ovation from his buddies by letting himself be sprayed by a scared skunk. The lads applaud and guffaw over the ankles they sprain and the noses they smash by slamming into immovable objects. Shot in a clunky home-video style and featuring plentiful digitally masked nudity, the show revels in all the naughty and risky things your parents warned you against (but that you knew perfectly well you would survive).

In Episode 103, first broadcast last October, Johnny Knoxville decides he wants to be set on fire. We see a stuntman, Kevin McCarthy (identified as a "pyrotechnics professional"), put Johnny into a multi-layer "burn suit," the kind used in movies. Kevin explains various safety precautions and shows Johnny how to signal for help if he should feel at all uncomfortable. When Johnny jokes about the situation, Kevin counters by telling him about the horrible burns that stuntpersons have suffered after making even slight mistakes. He then covers Johnny's face with a fireproof mask, applies fuel with a paintbrush, and ignites Johnny with a flamethrower. Johnny dances around for about ten seconds and then gives the discomfort signal. Two assistants standing by with fire extinguishers instantly step in and put out the fire. Kevin pulls the mask off Johnny's sweaty face. Relieved, Johnny explains that he gave the signal because he couldn't breathe anymore—the fire was taking all his oxygen.

Every Jackass episode begins with—and every commercial break is followed by—a full-screen disclaimer reminding viewers that the stunts are dangerous and should not be tried at home. The stunts, according to the disclaimer used at the time, are performed by "professionals and/or total idiots."

Within four days of Jason Lind's burning Senator Joseph Lieberman, of Connecticut, had talked with Jason's father and had accused MTV of broadcasting Jackass irresponsibly. On February 7 Lieberman wrote a letter to MTV's parent company, Viacom, reprimanding the network for presenting its material "without informing viewers that the performer of the stunt was wearing protective clothing" and asking MTV to change, reschedule, or "cancel this exploitative and degrading show."

Two things undermine Senator Lieberman's statement. First, the factual error: more than half of the three-minute Jackass segment—about a minute and forty-five seconds—is devoted to showing Knoxville being suited in protective gear and to explaining the safety procedures in detail. Second, two days after Lieberman sent his letter, the Lind family's attorney announced that Jason's parents were busy caring for their child and felt that it was inappropriate and premature to discuss lawsuits or point fingers until fact had been sorted from hearsay. "At this time," the attorney said, "I don't think anyone has a clear picture of what happened two weeks ago. Neither I nor the police have been able to ask Jason what happened." The doctors had recommended letting Jason recover before raising stressful questions.

Nevertheless, in the wake of the widely publicized story, the notion of blaming TV for the misadventures of youth seemed to be in vogue. On February 3 a twelve-year-old in Florida doused his hand in bug spray, lit it on fire, and ended up with burns. "I don't blame myself,"he said. "I kind of blame the show"—by which he meant Jackass.

Then, on February 15, Senator Fritz Hollings, of South Carolina, cited Jason Lind's story when he proposed a bill (S. 341) that would limit children's exposure to "violent" television. His law would restrict children's access to shows with "violent" special effects and stunts. But it would permit exceptions for news and sports, where the bloodshed is real. I'm mystified. How can a senator use Jason Lind's suffering to validate such a sweeping, inconsistent law when so many fundamental questions remain unanswered—and are possibly unanswerable?

By the beginning of April, MTV had moved Jackass to a later time slot and had removed every trace of wit from its disclaimer. Jason Lind had returned to school. He wore baggy cargo jeans over his bandaged legs. His attorney said he was embarrassed about the incident and didn't want anybody to notice him. According to the attorney, Jason was still "not able to shed clear light on the different stories, because he has no clear recollection of everything that happened." As of this writing, Jason's parents have announced no plans to pursue legal or political action. They are helping Jason to catch up on his schoolwork and get back to normal. A tutor works with him three nights a week. His mother, Kathy Lind, told a reporter, "He seems to care more. He missed a lot, but he is focused. He is glad he is able to walk."

When I have questions about child-rearing, I turn to an authority I trust: my parents. On a recent visit home I sat at the kitchen table with my mother, who is ninety-two, and put before her all the clippings I had collected about Jason Lind. She read them and then looked up at me through her large, rectangular bifocals and said, "Strange. That boy, all burned up, apologizes in the emergency room. He knew what he had done was noodleheaded. I wonder if they'd discussed it—if his parents had told him not to play with fire and then he went to somebody else's house and did it anyway. Of course, I'm just guessing. Nobody knows, and it's none of our business."

I asked my father, who is eighty-seven, what he would do if Jason were his son. He rubbed the top of his bald head thoughtfully. "I'd just take care of the kid," he said. "He's learned the hard way. He's not going to do it again. Get burned for a while, you know all about it."

When I consider the 4.9 million people who, according to MTV, viewed Episode 103 of Jackass without harm, and when I see how lovingly Jason Lind's parents are nursing their son, I think my parents have the right idea. Blaming parents and attacking the media will not stop children from making mistakes. As the psychologist groping to understand a troubled youngster in Peter Shaffer's play Equus says,

A child is born into a world of phenomena, all equal in their power to enslave. It sniffs—it sucks—it strokes its eyes over the whole uncomfortable range. Suddenly one strikes. Why? Moments snap together like magnets, forging a chain of shackles. Why? I can trace them. I can even, with time, pull them apart again. But why at the start were they ever magnetized at all—just those particular moments of experience and no others—I don't know. And nor does anyone else.