Thanks, Internet, for facilitating the golden age of death threats
It’s never been easier to send an anonymous death threat.
In the old days, issuing one required a stamp, an envelope and a trip to a post box. You had to wear gloves to prevent embossing the page with incriminating fingerprints. Spell it out longhand? Good God no! Given a few leads, the boys in police forensics could compare it to other samples of your handwriting. Use a typewriter? Typewriters leave tell-tale signatures on the page by which the machine and potentially the owner can be identified. Cut and paste from newspaper headlines, ransom-note style? A very time- consuming project just to put the fear of death into somebody. Use a telephone? C’mon, phone records can be traced.
As with so many of life’s labors, advanced technology has removed most of the work and hazard from sending cowardly messages to people to frighten them. The cautious and methodical know to anonymize their browsers with Tor and to use other cloaking techniques to reduce the odds of being apprehended.
If ease is the measure, we are living in a golden age of death threats. Bob Bergdahl, father of the Army sergeant who was recently sprung from Taliban captivity, has received at least four frictionless threats to his life via email in recent days. The threats have led to the cancelation of a celebratory rally in the Bergdahl hometown of Hailey, Idaho. Just two months ago, Oculus founder Palmer Luckey found himself on the receiving end of death threats for having sold his virtual reality company to Facebook. According to gaming website Kotaku, video game designers frequently face anonymous death threats after updating or changing games (Minecraft, Call of Duty, Mass Effect) in a way that displeases customers.
Other recent, high-profile recipients of Internet death threats include the Detroit police chief; a writer; an entrepreneur; an actress; a gun dealer; a pro baseball player, a pro football player, another pro football player, and a pro soccer player. (See also, this 2012 round-up of Twitter death threats.)
Death threats — Internet or otherwise — aren’t funny, even to journalists who have been getting them inside packages filled with toenail clippings and scraps of animal fur since they filed their first stories. But it’s impossible to discuss the threats without cracking jokes. The idea that a news story, poor performance on the athletic field, or the redesign of a software product would inspire even the unbalanced to commit murder can’t be taken seriously. Reconciling the illogical with reality is something only humor seems to be effective at doing.
When discussing death threats, we must also never forget context and legal jurisdiction. If somebody living in a nursing home 3,000 miles away from me threatens to end my life with a poisoned samurai sword because he dislikes one of my columns, I might flinch. But if he has no realistic chance of following through, he’ll probably not suffer for his actions. Again, depending on the jurisdiction, the closer he comes to fulfilling his ambition, the more likely the state will charge him.
If you’re taking to your keyboard to denounce me in the comments section, let me reiterate that I’m not saying all threats are empty. Some people make good on the loopiest threats. For instance, road-rage artists who vow to run motorists off the road for cutting them off have been known to do just that, resulting in vehicular homicide. Also, not all threats are equal. High-profile “targets” — such as abortion doctors, judges and presidents — can’t afford to be cavalier when singled out for Internet death threats.
Internet death threats are a product of our long-term tolerance of anonymity. The postal system and pay telephones made death threats simple to issue because anonymous messages from them are so difficult to track. As long as the death-threateners don’t need to produce an identification card to send a letter, make a pay phone call — presuming they can find a pay phone — obtain an email account, submit something in the comments area of a website or secure a place on Twitter or Facebook, the death threat will live on. The first person crazy enough to campaign for Web IDs in the name of eliminating death threats should prepare himself for — should we say — a very violent response.
The “why” behind your garden-variety death threat still puzzles me. It makes no more sense to threaten to kill somebody over the Web than it does to bare your teeth, growl, and claw at the shopper who bumps into you at the supermarket. Sure, we’re all angry, and we want to take it out on somebody — anybody. For those with an excess of hostility for his fellow man (you’re looking at one), the Web provides endless opportunities to make the two primary statements a human must make if he intends to live long. The first is, “I’m here.” The second is, “Don’t even think of messing with me.”
If that sounds too much like a page out of an evolutionary psychology textbook, try my alternate theory: An Internet death threat is the modern way of saying hello, only in the meanest words possible.
Don’t send death threats to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com and I promise not to issue them from my Twitter feed. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.
PHOTO: A man surfs the internet using a wireless connection in the lobby of a hotel in Havana January 23, 2013. REUTERS/Desmond Boylan