TAIPEI - The latest MRT stabbings in Taipei on Monday evening at Zhongshan Station by a 27 year old man (surnamed Kuo) are again stoking fears throughout Taiwan, which on the whole has not been used to high rates of crime. The latest crime matches a pattern of recent attacks which have involved young, socially outcast and unemployed men using knives to vent their frustrations on random strangers. While beefing up security is a short term approach to the problem, the government also needs to address underlying structural problems to prevent such crimes from becoming more commonplace.
Yesterday, police detained a 23-year-old surnamed Yang, for proposing a copycat crime, when he placed a threatening message on an Internet news site. Yang was reported to write: "I should do what he (Kuo) did, and stab people at Zhongshan MRT station." He later posted on Facebook: "At 8:00 p.m., I'm going to stab people at Zhongshan MRT station and not lose to Master Cheng." Kuo was referring to Cheng Chieh who killed four and injured another 21 in a stabbing spree last year. Authorities acted swiftly here, and rightly so.
Acting on Information
The thin line between law enforcement and a surveillance state requires how clear and present danger is defined once information about a potential impending attack becomes public. In situations such as Yang, criminal investigation units can and must respond by shutting down copycat threats. Law enforcement and social media sites, should work in tandem to remove the postings of the criminals in this regard. And while it is the duty of journalists to inform the public, the methods employed by the assailants should not be shared by authorities in order for them to saturate public airwaves with grizzly details.
The Media's Role: Reflection
Beyond reflecting on the perceptions generated through reporting and the words that are used, Taiwan's media can also do better by ascertaining underlying causes of the crime and moving away from fear mongering. While Taipei's metro system has seen its spate of violent attacks, such incidents are random, sporadic and undertaken by troubled individuals with unstable minds. Monday's incident shows that while an increased security presence could soothe nerves, actions taken by metro officials were able to prevent the attacker from stabbing others or escaping.
While monitoring threats to public order can yield immediate results in preventing copycat crimes, its potential cost in generating suspicion and interfering with personal privacy cannot be wished away, or merely be seen as morally justifiable. A long hard look at these social outcasts reveals a greater disconnect with human interaction despite the proliferation of social networking sites and online interaction.
Looking back at the patterns of recent assailants also reveals that youth unemployment cannot be ignored forever. Even if desperate acts of violence are not the first means in which people employ to cope with their sense of shame and invisibility, the government can go a long way in building a socially secure community by addressing underlying structural problems, rather than relying on widening the dragnet of surveillance in perpetuity.