A hostage situation that began around 1 p.m. in the Maryland offices of the Discovery Channel ended with gunfire late today when police shot and killed eco-crusader James Lee, age 43, freeing 3 hostages taken by Lee when he stormed the building. Lee’s actions–an armed assault with a handgun and what appeared to be bombs strapped to his body–may have been the culmination of a long-term, obsessive grudge against the cable network. A grudge that eventually overrode and took control of his his radical beliefs about ecology and population growth.
Lee posted a manifesto at savetheplanetprotest.com, but his re-purposing of the web page he’d owned since 2008 was only the latest step in Lee’s on-and offline crusade to draw attention to his cause and gain notice from the Discovery Channel. Posts with his email address and name can be found online dating back to 2006.
Lee’s original website was worldguardianvoices.com. An archived version of the page shows he was in San Diego in early December, 2006. Using the contact email “firstname.lastname@example.org,” Lee posted a notice dated December 11 that year stating he would be “meeting at Border’s Bookstore Downtown San Diego Gaslamp area” with “prospective people who want to do something.” He described “World Guardian Voices” as “a movement designed to educate the masses on the impending cultural collapse from overpopulation, global warming, animal extinction, pollution, and exploitation.” As with his manifesto discovered today, Lee made it clear in 2006 that his efforts were inspired by the works of Daniel Quinn, an author popular among environmentalists and anarchists. There was no mention of Discovery or any of its historically affiliated networks on Lee’s old site. Lee made no mention of the science-themed cable network 11 days later, when he made a pair of mysterious posts in a group forum on Myspace.com. Lee wrote:
I believe that it is totally possible to save the world. Not because I am a delusional maniac high on something, but because I had a practical idea on how to do it. A vision you might say, a solid idea that was very possible. The idea is not so unusual that it could not fail. I believe that there is a possibility that it could fail, like anything else.
BUT, I believe it so strongly in this idea that I am willing to put all my retirement money on it and risk ending up living on the streets like a hobo begging for handouts.
I can’t tell anyone all the specifics about my idea, because we are in competition with other environmental groups that mean well, but serve the needs of the River. If I tell you exactly what it is, the idea could be lost forever and I’ll just go off into retirement while I watch the world consume itself, so don’t ask me to be too specific about my idea.
Lee later wrote what appears to have been a response to a question since deleted from the thread. His second post was guarded, ending with, “If the idea matures to a successful execution I will call you and tell you the complete idea, because at that point you will need to know. At that point you can refuse. You can refuse at any point and quit at any time. You are under no obligation to continue even once you have started. It will roll on it’s own after that.” He then added his his “misterfifteen” hotmail address.
Less than two years later, James Lee had his current website up and running and the Discovery Channel firmly in his sights. He had even posted what he called a “Sample Essay,” a proposal for “a reality-game show called Race to Save the Planet.” Here’s a portion of Lee’s description of his concept:
This is a show where contestants would come from all over to compete with each other and come up with ideas to save the planet. The idea here is to use human inventiveness to save the planet from the environmental destruction it’s facing. People competing can either have completely new ideas on how to save the planet, or they can build on another person’s idea and make that original idea better.
The persons coming up with the good ideas will win cash prizes as incentives. People who build on another person’s ideas will also receive prizes for doing so, AND the persons whose idea was built on will also receive a commission for his original idea and future commissions whenever his idea is used or improved.
“Humans are proud and known for their inventiveness,” continued Lee, “so why not harness that energy to come up with creative ideas to save the planet?”
Lee’s commitment to the project may have been a bit more than academic; on a Youtube account under the name “savetheplanetprotest” he published the following video, which he described as an “Experimental video title introduction for a TV Show idea about saving the planet.”
On his site, Lee’s description of his pitch for Race to Save the Planet made it seem like an experiment, an exercise. A blurb on the anti-war and social change website “United for Peace & Justice” to publicize his February, 2008 “protest” of Discovery seemed to say otherwise. Lee titled the item “Save the Planet Protest Against the Discovery Channel” and wrote:
I have tried to submit television show ideas to the Discovery Channel about saving the planet and they have outright rejected all ideas and won’t even listen. My question is: What will it hurt to broadcast shows about seeking solutions to saving the planet? What would it hurt to at least TRY to find solutions by televising shows asking the public for new ideas on how to live? The reason they keep broadcasting shows against saving the life on this planet is because we don’t say anything. We let them get away with it. Only we, the people, can demand change. Only we can demand from the world that they start making positive changes starting with Discovery Channel’s programming. If there is ANY network whose responsibility it is to save the planet, it’s the Discovery Channel. We would like to ‘discover’ new ways to live and ‘invent’ new ways to save this planet called Earth. The debate about the state of the planet is over. Global Warming is a reality. Animal species going extinct IS happening. If nothing is done, so may we. Now begins the debate on how to save the planet. Join me there to demand change.
The outcome of that protest was Lee’s arrest for a number of relatively minor charges, some due to a stunt he pulled to draw attention to his efforts–he hurled money in the air, causing a mini-riot. Lee linked to the video of the money-toss from an earlier version of his “Save the Planet” website.
The exact catalyst for James Lee’s assault on the offices of the Discovery Channel may never be known, unless it came out during police attempts to negotiate with the hostage-t
Lee left a distinct record of his obsession, though, for whatever that’s worth. While Lee’s online writing (with the possible exception of his final manifesto) may illustrate his paranoia and obsession, it doesn’t really seem to predict his final siege on One Discovery Place.
Fortunately and most importantly, Lee’s hostages were rescued unharmed.