The VIP Menace

To the list of things that happen only to the elite, we must now add being bitten by a Komodo dragon. Chatterbox is referring to the incident Saturday at the Los Angeles Zoo in which Phil Bronstein, executive editor of the San Francisco Chronicle (and better known as husband to the sultry Sharon Stone), was admitted into the cage of a Komodo dragon. Barefoot at the request of the zoo keeper, who thought Bronstein’s sneakers looked too much like the white rats on which the giant lizard feeds, Bronstein was nonetheless pounced on by the Komodo dragon, which clamped its powerful jaws onto Bronstein’s foot, crushing his big toe and severing several tendons. (Click here for the gleeful account in the Los Angeles Times and here for a marginally more respectful version in Bronstein’s own paper. Interestingly, journalism and the Komodo dragon have intersected humorously once before, in this classic Bob and Ray sketch. Click here to see Ian Recchio, reptile keeper at the L.A. Zoo, explain why you don’t want to get bitten by a Komodo dragon: “Something like a thousand-pound water buffalo may die in just a day or two.” Bronstein appears to be recovering nicely, or of course Chatterbox wouldn’t make light of his misfortune.)

The defining characteristic of Bronstein’s horrible experience is that it is not available to ordinary people. If you or I were to ask the L.A. Zoo if we could cozy up to a dangerous wild animal, we’d be told to get lost. Bronstein, however, was permitted to risk life and limb because the request was made by his famous, beautiful, and rich wife. Probably she had to be only two of these things, and conceivably Bronstein would have been allowed into the cage simply on the strength of his editing a big-city newspaper. The point is that most people are denied the opportunity to do extravagantly risky things because most people aren’t VIPs. Examples:

  • Most people aren’t allowed to take a thrill ride on a Navy sub that collides with a Japanese fishing boat.
  • Most people aren’t allowed to blast off on a Soyuz spacecraft.
  • Most people never get the chance to go heliskiing.

In some instances, the VIP’s heightened desire to embrace what society regards as an unacceptable risk merely shows that society is hypocritical to judge it so. The best example of this is the unimpeded access VIPs usually enjoy to experimental medical treatment. In many other cases, though, the VIP’s desire to risk his own life and/or those of others is actively harmful. The psychological reasons why a VIP should embrace unacceptable risk do not much concern Chatterbox. Recreational adversity, he supposes, in place of the real thing. But why should we as a society permit VIPs to behave this way? Is it because we’re cowed by them? Is it because they can bribe us with their money or their access to things beyond other people’s reach? Or is it because we secretly hate them and cherish opportunities to see them injured or killed? Before the Bronstein incident, Chatterbox would have found this last hypothesis ridiculous. Now he isn’t so sure.

[Update, 10 a.m.: In the June 12 Daily News, Rush and Molloy report that Bronstein was in his stocking feet rather than barefoot. If this is true, and if Bronstein was, as reported widely, wearing white sneakers that day, the probability would appear to be that Bronstein’s socks were also white. (It’s hard to imagine Sharon Stone would marry a guy dorky enough to wear dark socks with white sneakers.) But could Bronstein really have been stupid enough to leave on white socks after he’d been warned that white sneakers looked to the Komodo dragon like lunch? Chatterbox won’t belive it until he’s presented with more solid evidence.]

[Update, June 14: Bronstein wasn’t that stupid. In an interview today with Leah Garchik in the Chronicle, Bronstein confirms that he was barefoot.]

Photograph of Komodo dragon by Wolfgang Kaehler/Corbis.