The Cannibal on Bus 1170: Rethinking Moral Panics

In July 2008, 22-year-old Tim McLean was riding Greyhound Bus 1170, on his way back to his home in Winnipeg, Canada, when he was attacked by Vincent Li, a fellow passenger. Li stabbed McLean numerous times before cutting off McLean’s head, dismembering the body and eating some of the parts.

Li, who suffered from schizophrenia, was quickly arrested and subsequently deemed unfit for criminal prosecution on the basis that, as Canadian sociologist Heidi Rimke describes it:

“The voices in his head were telling him Tim McClean was going to harm him and everybody on the bus”.

For Li, therefore, killing McLean and eating his body was the only possible way to save the lives of all concerned.

“He believed that if he didn’t dismember and destroy the body it would re-constitute and thereby remain a threat to everyone on the bus”.

The widespread public anger and concern at these events – the brutal, apparently senseless, killing, the cannibalism and the fact Li seemed to “escape punishment” for his actions ( Li was committed to a secure medical facility from which he was released in 2017) – suggested a classic moral panic in the form described by Stan Cohen in “Folk Devils and Moral Panics” (1972):

“A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible”.

But while this classic formulation sees a moral panic as a top-down process, whereby:

  • powerful individuals / groups define a threat to values or interests which is:
  • picked-up by the mass media, which leads to a:
  • build-up of public anxiety that demands a:
  • response from authorities and a subsequent:
  • amplification of the original problem,
  • the McLean murder took the form of what Goode and Ben-Yehuda (2009) suggest is a grass-roots model, whereby massive pressure from below explodes into widespread public anger that the authorities then struggle to contain. In this particular instance, such was the level of public anger about both the killing and, perhaps more significantly, the legal response that appeared to absolve Li of any moral responsibility for his actions, the Canadian authorities were forced to issue television appeals for calm.

    Our latest short film, “The Cannibal on Bus 1170: Rethinking Moral Panics”, features Dr. Heidi Rimke of the University of Winnipeg outlining and explaining the background to the McLean murder. The film looks at the conventional notion of a top-down moral panic and contrasts this with a Bottom-up model that places new forms of social media (from Twitter, through Facebook to YouTube) at the centre of the moral discourse.

    If you want to dig a little deeper into Rimke’s ideas about the changing face of moral panics in the age of digital media, “Beheading Aboard a Greyhound Bus: Security Politics, Bloodlust Justice, and the Mass Consumption of Criminalized Cannibalism” is worth a read, particularly for the concept of Monstering and its incorporation into the psyche of contemporary forms of governance in Western societies – particularly, but not exclusively, in relation to migration and terrorism.

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