Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Death Threats

I know that the AI Rottweiler death threat has already been discussed at length by David Neiwert, but there's a very specific point I want to make that I haven't seen made anywhere else.

Quick summary of events for those unfamiliar: A guy named Eric Blumrich created an advertisement for the Kucinich campaign which made Misha of the Anti-Idiotarian Rottweiler angry. Misha's response was his typical stream of invective and violent rhetoric, with one key addition which crossed a line he hasn't crossed before: he encouraged violence against Blumrich and posted Blumrich's home address with a map showing a star over his residence.

Misha has since then taken down the map and apologized for posting it, but he maintains that it was simply a joke made in bad taste in a fit of anger.

David Neiwert does a very god job of taking down Misha and his after-the-fact excuses, and clearly outlines why this kind of thing is dangerous. I highly recommend you read his piece.

But here's the part I want to add: in making the post he did, Misha came damn close to something I've been expecting for some time now. Neiwert makes the valid point that during the Rwandan genocide, state radio stations were used to direct mobs to their victims, whom they then raped/killed/dismembered. I'm not afraid of that happening anytime soon here in the US; no, what I'm afraid of is more subtle, and is a lot more user friendly in that it doesn't require a kill-crazy mob. Let's call it net murder, for lack of a better term.

I got the idea from a Bruce Sterling novel titled Distraction. The basic concept is to take a database of people who are known to be mentally ill, and send them information about someone you want dead (name and address), along with some kind of trigger, tailored to their individual illnesses. Over the course of the next few weeks, random people show up at your target's house and attempt to kill him - one of them is bound to get lucky.

The way I see it, it's only a matter of time before this kind of thing actually happens; it's too simple an idea to not be implemented.

So, do I think that Misha made an attempt at net murder?

Yes. Broadly, crudely, unintentionally, but yes.

All the elements are there. Information leading to the location of the target combined with the suggestion of violence given to the mentally ill using a trigger specific to them.

You think I'm going too far with the mentally ill part? Misha has had more than 1 million page views; do you really think that none of those people are disturbed in one way or another? And as for the trigger, Misha's site is by its very nature a filter designed to sort out all but the most enraged partisans - and the things Misha says about Blumrich are the kind of things that send that kind of crowd into a frenzy.

As I said, it's very crude, not nearly as sophisticated as what Sterling describes, but it's there in recognizable form.

This should, of course, scare the living shit out of any rational person.

"I have a gun/was a green beret/am really tough! I can defend myself from this kind of pettiness!"

Yeah. Okay. Do you carry a gun on the way to work? How about in the grocery store? What about your kids? Your wife? Can you protect them 24 hours a day from random people intent on killing them?

Wow- that got real heavy, real fast, didn't it? It seems like I'm overreacting quite a bit - Misha was just having a bit of fun.

But I'm not. As much as Misha would like to laugh it off, this is deadly serious stuff. Violent, crazy people are out there, and they know how to use a web browser just as easily as you and me. That is why coupling personal information (even if it is publicly available to those who know how to look for it) with an exhortation to violence is a line that must not be crossed - especially here in the blogosphere, where rhetoric and partisan passions flare white hot, and hatred comes easily because the person on the other side exists to you as mere words on a screen, a cold, impersonal non-human, as easy to unleash destructive rage upon as the vaccuum on which you stubbed your toe last week.

The blogosphere - or any other forum in which ideas flow freely - cannot bear the weight of Sterling's dark vision.

And so we condemn Misha's actions, and, as in any other forum, try our best to establish as one of the very few ground rules of discussion the idea that violence and threats of violence will not be tolerated.

And then, we sit around and wait until someone decides maybe Misha's actions weren't so bad after all, repeats them, and someone gets hurt or killed.

I'd like to say that such a thing isn't likely to happen any time soon, but I don't feel very confident in that, and I'm too tired to lie to you tonight.

A couple key points:

- I don't give a good goddamn about Blumrich's commercial. I haven't seen it, and I probably never will. It might well be beyond the bounds of good taste and decency - or it might not. I don't know, it doesn't matter.

- I don't give a good goddamn about Blumrich. Prior to this incident, I've never read anything by or about him. If his responses to Misha and others are quoted correctly, he seems like a dick. On the other hand, he might be a fantastic, articulate guy on a bad day. I don't know, it doesn't matter. This isn't about Blumrich.

- I don't think Misha is evil. I think he's a bit of a nerd who got some online recognition for saying OUTRAGEOUS!!! things, took it, and ran with it. The problem with saying OUTRAGEOUS!!! things, of course, is that it gets old quickly unless you can continually top yourself, and there's only so many combinations of fuck, shit, cunt, dick, ass, and traitor that one can go through before OUTRAGEOUS!!! becomes run-of-the-mill. Misha has made a name for himself by playing the part of the angriest man saying the nastiest things about those he disagrees with, but that type is very easy to come by in the crowds he runs with, and the competition for his title is fierce. So he keeps ratcheting up the rhetoric to please his loyal fans, until he has now crossed a very serious line - I'm willing to believe unintentionally, but cross it he did.

- Having said that, there is no innocent explanation for Misha's posting a map to Blumrich's apartment. A fit of pique, satire gone awry, whatever explanation Misha settles on, none can get around the simple fact that the map was clearly meant to intimidate at the least. Unacceptable.

- It is not often that I find myself agreeing with John Cole - usually, I want to somehow see him end up in prison - but he deserves credit for standing up to not only someone of a similiar ideological stripe as him, but to someone with whom he has corresponded and is on good terms. That, I fear, is the only kind of condemnation that will keep the darker impulses of both sides in check.

- Before you decide that no one is crazy enough to actually kill based upon some shit they read on a blog (a notion that I think is charmingly naive), consider that while the notion of killing Blumrich might be beyond the pale for most people, malicious vandalism is well within a lot of people's threshold. Maybe someone would think that simply smashing his windows would be a fine repayment for being a "traitor." But having your windows smashed isn't that big a deal, right? Well, yes it is. Imagine that you received the kind of threats that Blumrich did. Now imagine that your windows suddenly get smashed. You'd be rather afraid wouldn't you? And if not, remember what I said about work, the grocery store, and your family. Serious, criminal intimidation, intended to silence ideological opponents. Unacceptable, and I don't care if he pissed on an American flag while stabbing a bald eagle.

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