Friday, March 26, 2010

On Death Threats

The first time I ever became aware of the concept of a "death threat" was when I read a book about Hank Aaron. My childhood mind was horrified by the concept that people could threaten to murder a baseball player because he was black and was going to overtake Babe Ruth's home run record. Several years later I read that Barry Bonds had received death threats on the way to breaking Aaron's record. Although I certainly wasn't happy to read this, I was decidely less affected. For me, somewhere along the way, the death threat lost its sting.

I hadn't thought much more about death threats until this week, when seemingly everybody in Congress who voted for the health care bill received death threats. But they weren't alone in getting necrological missives in the last couple months. College football coach Lane Kiffin talked about threats on his life after leaving Tennessee for Southern California. Climate change scientists lamented a flurry of threats. And if Scott Baio is the target of death threats for making fun of Michelle Obama, nobody is safe.

And lest anyone think that the death threat is the exclusive province of the political right, I found a now ironic item on a right-wing blog. Dated March 3, the blog notes that death threats had recently been made against GOP senator Jim Bunning, and rhetorically asks: "Ever notice it's always Republicans on the receiving end of death threats?" (I give them credit for not editing out that sentence in recent days).

So it seems that despite the increased public attention this week, the truth is that the death threat is not at all uncommon in our society; any public figure who does anything slightly controverial is at high risk of receiving a communication that references the possibility of impending doom. But that leads to the question: who exactly are the people making these death threats? Certainly in a nation of over 300 million, you have a pretty good pool of potential culprits (who I will refer to as "death threaters"). Everyone has encountered a fair share of shady characters in a lifetime. And everyone has certainly encountered a fair share of people who make others uncomfortable with the vehemence of their rhetoric. But I can't think of anyone I have ever met who I would classify as a likely suspect to make a death threat.

A sociologist at San Jose State by the name of Stephen Morewitz recently delivered a lecture in which he profiled death threaters as "younger males who are of low socio-economic status, own firearms, are mentally disturbed, have a criminal record, are child abusers, domestic abusers and substance abusers." But I think there is a problem with this profile (well, there may be a few flaws, but I'll focus on one). I think there is a difference between the type of person who makes death threats against people they know and the type of person who sends anonymous death threats to public figures. He's describing the former. And those are the people who might actually carry through on their threats.

But poverty-stricken drug-addled women-beating gun-toting young men don't have the attention span to watch baseball games, so they are not sending death threats to Barry Bonds. They are not on Twitter, so they don't know what Scott Baio is saying about Michelle Obama. And though they might have political opinions, they are not quite plugged in to the 24-hour news cycle, so they are probably unaware when Jim Bunning is fillibustering, or when Bart Stupak is changing his mind about health care legislation. Actually, the truly violent and dangerous people in society by and large don't know who Jim Bunning and Bart Stupak are, much less how to find their contact information and send them communications.

I won't presume to offer a comprehensive counter-profile of anonymous death threaters, but it does seem likely that they are fairly well educated. And the fact that they never, ever follow through on their threats tells us something, too. They want to communicate displeasure in the harshest possible terms, without suffering any personal consequences. "I'm going to kill you" is code for "I have very strong feelings about something you said or did, but I do not have the language to accurately or eloquently convey the depth of my feeling, and even if I could express my thoughts in a worthwhile manner, I have a deep-seated insecurity about my power to affect my external environment, so I will exact what small measure of control I can and attempt to terrorize your psyche."

So based on the above, feel free to construct your own profile. But there is one more interesting paradox to consider. I assert that people make death threats in part because they feel powerless over their environment. But more than ever, people have the ability to articulate their opinions and attempt to influence the public sphere. In theory, the existence of Internet communication should allow people to blow off steam that would otherwise be directed toward making threats against public figures. But if anything, Internet culture seems to make people feel more hopeless than hopeful. The more we talk, it seems, the less confident we are that people out there are actually listening. And for some, the only recourse is to cynically drop out of the discourse altogether.


Blogger Nanette said...

Nicely said, Azor! Yes, I think we can attribute a lot to a sense of powerlessness to influence the change agents, especially on the national level. I write (polite, of course) letters to my congressman all the time, but I know my small voice is nothing compared to the vast sums of money he is receiving from large contributors. Money talks more loudly than most things in politics these days; it's even louder than guns.

Powerlessness is no excuse for extreme offensiveness, however. I'm still trying to understand the rationale behind telling someone that they hope they get cancer and die, or that they shoot ___ out of their a____. I mean, really. Couldn't the caller have come up with something less idiotic?

10:50 AM  
Blogger Sandii_Mina said...

Isn't death threat kind of like cyber bullied?? Death notes, etc... Yea I believe, it is for that part of being powerless and sometime offensive too. But some death threat are by anonymous user, yet we don't know how anonymous internet is anymore.

3:56 PM  

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