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.