Did a TV show host set a magician on fire because he thought he was a witch-doctor?

Nelson Jones investigates the attack on Wayne Houchin on Dominican television.


Shocking footage has emerged on YouTube of a magician being attacked and badly injured by the host of a TV show on which he was a guest.  In an apparently spontaneous gesture, the man (who has been named as Franklin Barazarte) who is both host and producer of a talk-show in the Dominican Republic, doused 29-year old Wayne Houchin with a flammable liquid and set it on fire.  Reports suggest that Barazarte may have been intending to perform a "blessing" on the Las Vegas-based magician: the substance used, Agua de Florida, is a type of cologne but is marketed as being used by South American shamans for healing and cleansing rituals. Houchin sustained serious burns on his head, face, neck and hand.

At first there were fears that Houchin's injuries might prove disfiguring or even life-threatening.  The quick intervention of his own team may have saved him.  Happily a few hours later he was feeling well enough to update Twitter followers from his hospital bed. The doctors, he said, were "cautiously optimistic" that he would fully recover with no scars, but he would be extending his stay in the country while he underwent further treatment.  He thanked well-wishers for their "humbling and overwhelming" support and described the Dominican Republic as a "beautiful country full of beautiful people." 

He was also able to confirm that the attack on him, which he described as "criminal" and "intentional", was not part of a stunt and that he was unaware of what was going to happen.  So what provoked it?  The Las Vegas Weekly connected it with a culture in which, "for many people, witches and witchdoctors are very real". Their report notes that two years ago in neighboring Haiti, "around a dozen suspected witches were hacked to death by machetes and stoned in the streets. So it’s possible that the TV host thought he was doing a good thing in burning Houchin."

But Houchin has never posed as a witch or witchdoctor.  Like many magicians, he sometimes uses his knowledge of trickery to expose claims of psychic or miraculous powers, and he's currently associated with a Discovery Channel show Breaking Magic which reveals some of the secrets of the conjurer's art.  Even more strangely, the programme he was appearing on is described in some accounts as one specialising in astrology and other "psychic" matters.  There are also suggestions that another guest on the show, who normally hosts a different programme, described the attack as "divine justice" for the sorcery supposedly practised by Houchin and his colleagues, but there's no confirmation of that.  Nor is there any word on the fate of the attacker, or whether there are questions about his mental state.

We shouldn't jump to any conclusions about this one incident, although it if *was* an attempted exorcism, it would not be unique in involving violent and dangerous practices.  To take two examples from different parts of the world, in 2007 a Romanian priest was jailed for 14 years for conducting an exorcism that led to the death of a nun,  while in Japan last year a 13-year-old girl suffocated after being strapped down and doused with water by her father and a Buddhist monk who were trying to expel an "evil spirit". 

In both those cases, the exorcists were presumably trying to help their unfortunate victims.  The attack on Wayne Houchin doesn't appear to have had such a benign motivation, although it's possible that the attacker was unaware that the liquid would cause severe burns when ignited.  Not all flammable substances do, of course, which is why fire-eating is a performance art rather than a method of suicide.   But whether it was a terrible accident, a cultural misunderstanding or (most likely, perhaps) was a random act of insanity it does demonstrate the danger inherent in hand-wavy religion.


The attack on Wayne Houchin.
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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Can Trident be hacked?

A former defence secretary has warned that Trident is vulnerable to cyber attacks. Is it?

What if, in the event of a destructive nuclear war, the prime minister goes to press the red button and it just doesn't work? 

This was the question raised by Des Browne, a former defence secretary, in an interview witht the Guardian this week. His argument, based on a report from the defence science board of the US Department of Defense, is that the UK's Trident nuclear weapons could be vulnerable to cyberattacks, and therefore rendered useless if hacked. 

Browne called for an "end-to-end" assessment of the system's cybersecurity: 

 The government ... have an obligation to assure parliament that all of the systems of the nuclear deterrent have been assessed end-to-end against cyber attacks to understand possible weak spots and that those weak spots are protected against a high-tier cyber threat. If they are unable to do that then there is no guarantee that we will have a reliable deterrent or the prime minister will be able to use this system when he needs to reach for it.

Is he right? Should we really be worried about Trident's potential cyber weaknesses?

Tangled webs 

The first, crucial thing to note is that Trident is not connected to the "internet" we use every day. Sure, it's connected to the main Ministry of Defence network, but this operates totally independently of the network that you visit Facebook through. In cyber-security terms, this means the network is "air-gapped" - it's isolated from other systems that could be less secure. 

In our minds, Trident is old and needs replacing (the submarines began patrolling in the 1990s), but any strike would be ordered and co-ordinated from Northwood, a military bunker 100m underground which would use the same modern networks as the rest of the MoD. Trident is basically as secure as the rest of the MoD. 

What the MoD said

I asked the Ministry of Defence for a statement on Trident's security, and while it obviously can't offer much information about how it all actually works, a spokesperson confirmed that the system is air-gapped and added: 

We wouldn't comment on the detail of our security arrangements for the nuclear deterrent but we can and do safeguard it from all threats including cyber.

What security experts said

Security experts agree that an air-gapped system tends to be more secure than one connected to the internet. Sean Sullivan, a security adviser at F-secure, told Infosecurity magazine that while some hackers have been able to "jump" air-gaps using code, this would cause "interference" at most and a major attack of this kind is still "a long way off". 

Franklin Miller, a former White House defence policy offer, told the Guardian that the original report cited by Browne was actually formulated in response to suggestions that some US defence networks should be connected to the internet. In that case, it actually represents an argument in favour of the type of air-gapped system used by the MoD. 

So... can it be hacked?

The answer is really that any system could be hacked, but a specialised, independent defence network is very, very unlikely to be. If a successful hack did happen, it would likely affect all aspects of defence, not just Trident. That doesn't mean that every effort shouldn't be made to make sure the MoD is using the most secure system possible, but it also means that scaremongering in the context of other, unrelated cybersecurity scares is a little unjustified. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.