Are Death Threats the New Norm?

They’ve become so common now that most people don’t take them seriously. But even when we blow them off with little thought, there is still that tiny worried voice in the back of your mind saying “…but what if?”

Death Threats are Aberrant Behavior

Let’s start here. No matter how you excuse it, threatening to end someone’s life is purely and unequivocally aberrant. Deranged. Demented. Evil. Civilized societies decided centuries ago that taking a life was of such major import that it should only be done after much careful and considered thought. Related to that, threatening to take a life was also considered a serious offense. In more modern times simply pointing a gun or other deadly weapon at someone could earn you a stiff talking to by a local magistrate and possibly some time looking through a locked door. It’s just not something polite (meaning “smart”) people do.

Death Threats are for Losers

Issuing a Death Threat to someone is essentially the same as saying “I have no sensible argument to defend my opinion.” Often when someone issues a death threat, they disagree with the target of the threat, but they’ve been outwitted or flat proven wrong and cannot bring themselves to admit it. In short they are a Loser. With a capital “L”.

The Rise of the Social Death Threat

The explosion of Social Media has also resulted in an explosion in the number of death threats being issued around the world. Not so much from the usual terrorists and ideological extremists; they pretty much had the death threat market cornered first. No, the majority of today’s death threats come from social and political extremists. The type that blindly adheres to an opinion or position without a solid basis of facts to defend it. In fact their opinion is so loosely anchored that even a whisper can threaten to topple both it and them. And so they reach for the ultimate retort: A Death Threat.

Recent Examples of Death Threats

Just recently a comedian named Kathy Griffin staged a rather distasteful and horrific photo showing the severed head of our President. It was graphic and beyond the limits of even the most outrageous humor. She promptly apologized. Some accepted her apology, but some did not. Of those that did not, a small number were so personally offended that they felt it necessary to fire up their social bully pulpit and (anonymously) issued death threats to Ms. Griffin. C’mon people! Get serious. It was intended as humor, it failed horribly, she apologized. But was anyone so seriously injured that the ultimate penalty should be applied? No.

Democratic candidate Kim Weaver (Iowa’s 4th District Congressional seat) just recently ended her run for office citing death threats, among other reasons. Quoting from an article in the Sioux City Journal:

In the post, she said her decision to bow out of the race for Iowa’s 4th Congressional seat is due to “alarming acts of intimidation, including death threats.” She also said she will be moving out of the district — to Des Moines — to be closer to her mother, who has health concerns.

This is a case where a legitimate competitor for a political seat has been threatened with being killed. Yes, politics can be tough and often raises tempers to a very high level. But threatening to kill someone just because they hold differing views and want to compete for a political post? This sort of “ultimate violence” response is beyond aberrant, it should probably be criminal.

Are Death Threats Legal?

In the Dark Ages before social media, sending a death threat to someone required some effort. You had to cut a bunch of different letters out of several magazines and newspapers, arrange them into some sort of legible screed then glue them down and mail the whole crafts piece to your intended target. It was time consuming and, quite frankly, more trouble that most people would endure. Thus death threats were fairly rare. When one did arrive in the victim’s hands, it often went to police or law enforcement authorities and was followed up with some nose-to-nose time with intimidating people wearing suits and dark glasses. Often the threat was found to be illegal.

But that was then. Now it takes about 20 seconds, three too many beers and an active account on one of the many Social Media platforms that are popular today. What’s more, the sender of the threat can remain totally anonymous without taking time to bleach out the blood stains or wear rubber gloves. Social Media platforms have written into their Terms of Service language that protects the identity of each and every one using the platform. You can create an account in minutes, send your words of evil intent then abandon the account and never look back. By the time you’ve returned with that fourth too many beer, you’ve probably even forgotten the account’s password. Quick. Over and done. But still sick and despicable.

This new form of Instant Anonymous Death Threat is often not even tested for legality. The target of the threat is often unwilling or unable to devote the many hours to push the point with officials. Furthermore the protections provided by the Internet (in general) and the Social Media platform (in specific) make tracking down and prosecuting the sender an extremely arduous task. The result is that most get ignored.

Sometimes Death Threats are NOT Legal

In 2011 Time Magazine published an article entitled Threatening the Life of a Politician is Protected Speech. In it they review the case against one Walter Bagdasarian who posted several threatening messages toward Barack Obama. In his particular case the Secret Service determined that the content of his threats bore too much realistic information to be taken lightly. In the end he was convicted of violating a federal law against threatening a major presidential candidate.

But Often They Are

The real rub comes because we cherish the right of Free Speech. Courts often side on the cautious side of the matter by deciding that the death threat was simply the sender’s expression of that right. Many times in recent years the courts have decided that simply saying “I’m gonna kill you” (and other similar rants) are nothing more than a slightly beer-goggled typist venting a bit of passing anger. They find no merit in pressing the matter into a full criminal case. The threats have to have substance, demonstrate a capacity to carry them out, and have caused real disruption or distress to the target. Most do not meet those tests.

But Maybe They Should Be Illegal

As I stated at the start of this post, sending a death threat to anyone is a form of aberrant behavior. No matter that the effort required to send one is trivial. No matter that the target is miles away and most likely safe. No matter that the sender was just venting a bit of bile. Saying you will kill, or even want to kill someone is still a disgusting thing to say. And the target of that threat? They cannot really know if the sender can or cannot carry it out.

Social Media platforms really do have the ability to track most (if not all) death threats posted by their users. They capture IP Addresses, email accounts, times online and other behavior patterns that together can be used to exactly identify the true sender. As in the Bagdasarian case mentioned above, the Secret Service was able to track him down in very short order. With the progress of technology and the use of “Big Data” patterning, most Social Media platforms not only know who you are, they most likely know what brand of beer you drank that led you into typing those hateful words.

Social Media Needs to be Hostile to Death Threats

Facebook recently announced that it wants to be “Hostile” to terrorists. I believe that the concept of terrorism can be extended to the online death threat as well. Receiving a death threat can terrorize someone. Receiving a whole flurry of them most certainly creates terror in the victim. The same tools that Facebook and Twitter (and others) develop to identify and squash accounts used to promote extremist terrorists can also be flexed and fitted to identify the senders of Instant Anonymous Death Threats too. Even if the result is not a visit by the local constabulary, at least a strong slap on the wrist and a few weeks spent in the “Bad Boy Box of Silence” would go a long way toward cutting down on this recent and growing aberration in our Social Interaction.

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