Welcome to Superoceras, a blog about science and natural history, slightly biased towards paleontology and zoology, but inclusive of all sciences. Started in October of 2009, my goal is to communicate scientific knowledge (and the occasional piece of nonsense) in an informative and entertaining manner. Feel free to contact me with questions, comments, concerns, or criticism at superoceras(at)gmail(dot)com, and follow me on Twitter @Superoceras for all that and more in 140 characters or less!

Thursday, September 02, 2010

The Discovery Hostage Situation

As much as I don't want to write about this, I feel I have to say something.

Silver Spring, Maryland, right down the road from where I work and live, and home to the Discovery Communications headquarters building, made national news yesterday as a hostage situation unfolded. "Environmental fundamentalist" James J. Lee entered the lobby of the Discovery building around 1:00PM, 01 September, 2010 firing shots and taking hostages. A little before 5:00PM, police had shot and killed Lee after hours of surveillance and attempted negotiation, fearing for the lives of the hostages as he brandished a firearm and told police he had explosives in the building. Watching the situation unfold via live web streams, Twitter updates, and Google Buzz posts took up a large portion of my afternoon.

Lee thought that Discovery had an obligation to present programming that provided real solutions to the problems facing the planet today. He didn't like seeing programs on TLC and Discovery Health about the human population growing. He didn't like seeing Military Chanel programs on weapons and war, because he thought they would promote the more negative aspects of human culture. He didn't understand why the Discovery Channel aired shows about fisherman and loggers when over harvesting the seas and clear cutting forests didn't help the Earth, but rather, hurt it. He was arrested for a bizarre protest he held in front of the Discovery Communication's building back in 2008, and hadn't been seen since until yesterday. But he had a myspace page, and a website that detailed his list of demands and manifesto (which I refuse to link to, but I'm sure you can find with a quick Google search) that had been kept maintained over the years.

This was a terrible situation for all involved. It shut down a major business center in the Washington, DC area, traumatized the victims and families of those involved, put children at risk, and left a man dead. But why? To put it succinctly, Lee didn't like the programming lineup that Discovery Communications was dishing out. He was extremely upset that a network that promoted itself as environmentally friendly wasn't really doing all that much to help save the planet. He saw Discovery as having a huge potential to change the world with their content, and was upset that instead of using that potential, they were just in it for the money. Now I know that in the past I haven't hid my disappointment in Discovery's scheduled programming. But I sign petitions, and make phone calls. Something like what Lee did is way over the top.

I'm all for saving the planet, and I'm not ashamed to admit that I do agree (very loosely) with some of the points he makes. Discovery Communications (as well as every other media outlets for that matter) does have the potential and resources to ignite the human mind, and promote a way of human life that would benefit us, and the rest of the planet. Sometimes, I am a little confounded with the programs that Discovery Communications puts on the air, and the people it selects to host them. But they are also just a television network. They alone can't solve all of our planet's problems. Everyone has to help carry the load. I am, however, appalled at what Lee did, and how he did it. And I fear the repercussions this will have on other individuals, like myself, who do care about protecting the planet, its resources, and it multitude of living things we share the Earth with. It won't be long before people start blaming Darwin, science, and environmentalists for the downward spiral of human society. Crap, they already did (thanks to PZ Meyers of Pharyngula for catching this one).

I'm only going to say this once, and I'm going to say it quick. It will be the only comparison you ever hear me making between science and religion. But people have said it before, and will say it again, and so will I. James J. Lee represents environmentalists just as much as Osama Bin Laden represents Muslims and George W. Bush represents Christians. That is to say, he doesn't represent environmentalists at all. Lee, Bin Laden, and Bush are all fundamental extremists - they DO NOT speak for or represent any of the much larger groups they claim to be a part of, and these groups should in no way, shape, or form be judged by the terrible decisions and rationality of a select few individuals. And don't blame Darwin either! He was a soft spoken, politically correct man considering the time and place he came from. He was not a racist, and anyone who cites him as such, or blames his theory of descent with modification via natural selection for the moral corruption we see in the world today, can sod off. The man is a good friend of mine, so check yourself before you wreck yourself.

My point is, as happy as I am as this situation was resolved, I wish it hadn't happened in the first place. I can't help but think that if someone had just listened to Lee back when he protested in 2008 (before he went completely overboard) that this all might have been avoided. As much as I think he went too far, I feel that at some point, he must have been a somewhat reasonable man who was just concerned with the welfare of the planet. There was clearly a breakdown that took place, but if someone had sat down with him, listened to him, and rationalized with him, he might not have been pushed to think that his only option was to go out as a martyr for his cause. Perhaps Discovery Communications could do a little more to guarantee the quality and the impact of their programming as well. But no one sat down with him, and Discovery doesn't seem to be changing its mind about the way it's running its networks. So as it stands, the only one to really hold accountable for the situation is Lee. Not other environmentalists. Not Darwin. Not Discovery Communications. This was one man, on a misguided mission. So don't try and pin it on anyone else. Especially when you know the connection isn't there, and you're just using this terrible situation as a point to rally behind for your own misguided mission.

Ok, I'm spent. I promise I'll get back to much lighter posts... immediately. It's a new day people, so lets learn from the mistakes of yesterday and start putting our heads together. We can make the world a better place for ourselves, and future generations. It just takes a little effort.


  1. Yeah, this was a really disturbing incident. I think it represents what happens when a man's isolation lets his ideas fester, unchallenged. I don't know to what extent he was involved in the online environmental community, but my gut feeling is "not much." He was monomaniacal, and couldn't recognize that Discovery's failures area symptom, and the challenge before us can't be solved by violent acts. It's much more complicated and difficult to change attitudes on the broadest cope. Sad to see initially good intentions get twisted so badly.

  2. I agree, Dave. He didn't seem to be doing a lot of outreach other than protesting/threatening Discovery Communications. Which is a shame, because if he had put as much well focused energy into solving Earth's environmental problems, he probably could have accomplished a lot.