Because We Cannot Know

One Twitter user is about to lose his pseudonymity, at least as far as the government is concerned:

A man who proclaimed his desire on Twitter to sodomize Michele Bachmann with a machete will have his identity revealed to federal investigators, a U.S. District Court judge in Washington, D.C., has ruled.

The man — who for now remains anonymous in public court filings, and is referred to in Chief Judge Royce Lamberth’s ruling as “Mr. X” — wrote a tweet in August 2011 stating, “I want to fuck Michelle [sic] Bachmann in the ass with a Vietnam era machete.”

Arguing that the tweet was clearly meant in jest, Mr. X filed a motion to quash a subpoena filed by a federal grand jury against Twitter for records pertaining to his identity. Lamberth, however, denied the motion, reasoning that Mr. X’s identity could help prosecutors determine whether the tweet really constituted a threat against Bachmann or not.

Mr. X doesn’t even need someone to make the standard “joke defense” for him in this case (and I will be annoyed at anyone trying to do so in the comments, since this is the point of this post; read for understanding). He’s done it himself. Even Judge Lamberth considers Mr. X’s tweet stream to be a pathetically transparent “attempt to elicit the attention on the Internet that he surely lacks in real life.”

That still doesn’t matter. What does matter is that Mr. X has made a threat. Is it a credible threat? Well, here’s the thing: We don’t know. Even if we accept that it was an attempt to be funny, we don’t know. Is the humor supposed to be in violating the social norm that we never say something like that, or is doing something like that supposed to be funny, maybe even for the same reason? We don’t know.

Really, we don’t. There are people who consider violence hilarious. I don’t. You probably don’t, and if you don’t, you probably find it very difficult to wrap your brain around the idea that someone else can. That, also, doesn’t matter.  Nor does it matter that these people are rare. They still exist.

That makes the “joke defense” not just pointless, but also insulting to the person who has been threatened. Of course the victims of such threats know the threats are unlikely to be substantial–even when the victim is Michele Bachmann. Of course they know people were supposed to laugh over the threat. If they didn’t, the first person they revealed the threat to already told them, to promote “peace of mind” if for no other reason.

What they still don’t know is whether that threat, no matter how unlikely, actually is credible. They don’t know whether it’s supposed to be funny that they’re frightened–or funny that they’re injured or dead. They can’t, not without more information.

And neither can you or anyone else without access to the knowledge and training required to assess these threats. So the next time you find yourself ready to defend a joke like this knock it off, because really, you just don’t know.

Because We Cannot Know

20 thoughts on “Because We Cannot Know

  1. 2

    I don’t know. I missed this when it happened. I’m going to assume it related to something she said, or I’d expect the judge to have made a point of mentioning the specificity.

  2. 4

    Violent jokes and slapstick are funny for one of three reasons; Surprise, absurdity, and wishful thinking.

    Laughter is our brain’s way of releasing immediately after a sudden shock. If the act or threat was so unusual, bizarre, unlikely or weird, the disconnect from perceived reality remains humorous. We also gain amusement and feel less guilt from harm to others if we feel the victim is deserving of punishment.

    Watch a chunk of “America’s Funniest Home InjuriesVideos”, and you see this again and again. The accident is the shock that provokes the initial gasp/wince and nervous laughter. Whether it remains funny to people depends a lot on whether you feel they deserved it, and just how unlikely the accident was.

    Maybe the person thought a vicious death threat was shocking or absurd. It was almost certainly wishful thinking though, and as you said, there’s really just no frame of reference in the internet to know whether this guy is “joking”, “fantasizing”, or deadly serious.

  3. 5

    Yeah, violence is just a different animal. Like many, I use plenty of heated rhetoric from time to time, but threats of assault-or-worse inevitably are a different category entirely. I don’t think this guy should suffer criminal penalties in the very likely event that the “joke” turns out to have been empty bluster, but you can’t fault Bachmann or the public officials charged with protecting her for taking the matter seriously enough to investigate.

  4. 7

    I absolutely agree with your post, and with commenter Rieux. Threatening violence, especially with such a specific threat, is completely different and totally unacceptable. I’m all for free speech and think Twitter should be very, very careful about releasing user information to the government. But in this case it’s absolutely warranted. As you said, without more info we just don’t know.

  5. 8

    The joke defense is pretty weak. I’m surprised he didn’t go with “it’s not a threat, it’s a desire. I also want to buy Tahiti.” That seems more solid to me.

  6. 12

    Someone saying they are going to do something, I suppose. Human beings are capable of controlling their desires but saying they are *going* to do something feels like it crosses that line into threat territory.

    Though I guess it makes sense for them (Bachmann & Co) to take precautionary measures available to them for safety’s safe if they feel it’s necessary. As long as this kind of info is avaialble to anyone if they pursue it legally, that makes this feel less “thoughtcrime-y” and okay.

    I do think that he should be shamed for expressing such a hideous desire, but it doesn’t seem criminal to me. I guess that’s not what’s being argued here anyway.

  7. 14

    Ah, sorry. My misunderstanding.

    Yeah, I think I get your point. Like if someone walked up to me and said “I want to punch you in the face.”, perhaps I couldn’t *quite* accuse them of uttering threats (or could I? I don’t know), but it would certainly be reasonable of me to run away and seek some kind of security.

    Something like that? Please correct me if I’m misunderstanding further.

  8. 16

    Here is how I think of it as an actual threat. Reasonable people take someone saying “I want to kill myself” as a possible threat to attempt suicide because often people who do say, “I want to kill myself” mean it as a threat. Yes, sometimes people say it as a joke, but when they do their friends of course tell them not to joke in such a self depreciating way (funny how few friends step up to say threats of violence wished on others are not acceptable forms of joking).

    The point is that often taken in context people saying “I want to do _____” is indicative of the fact that given enough motivators they actually might do such a thing. It is absolutely impossible to know whether someone issued a threat or a desire without first understanding their motivators.

    In other words the correlation between stating a desire and attempting to achieve said desire is high enough to warrant concern in cases such as these. Proper authorities have expressed need to determine any causal link that exists that may motivate the statement beyond desire to shock and awe the perpetrator’s twitter audience.

  9. 17

    I’ve lived by the credo that if you didn’t mean it, you wouldn’t say it. It’s good to know that threats and calls for violence – which that non-“joke” is – are being prosecuted.

    But it begs the question: Why aren’t other such initimations of violence prosecuted as quickly or publicly? All I ever hear about are cases like Richard Humphreys’ “burning bush” comment of nine years ago, which didn’t constitute a threat except in the minds of the paranoid. Or A. J. Brown being harassed and accused of “making a threat” for having an anti-death penalty poster in her apartment.

    Among others.


  10. 18

    @adamshelton regarding the scenario of someone saying they want to punch you in the face. Soon in Minnesota you wouldn’t have to run away, you could simply blow them away.

    re: the post. I absolutely agree that threats of violence cannot be handwaved away with “it’s a joke”. I want to raise a separate concern. I am increasingly concerned with the power of the government to regulate speech.

    In this case, was a threat issued? Yes.
    Should there be an investigation? I don’t know, I’m don’t know the details of the case nor am I a trained psychologist.
    Should there be a prosecution? That depends on the results of the investigation but there should be a compelling reason for revealing the identity and it should go hand in hand with a prosecution. Otherwise this seems to be more about government deciding who can say what about who and not about any kind of justice or protection of Bachmann.

    I think this behavior of rape-joke or violence-joke needs to be called out (as Stephanie and others do continuously) and the defenders of the rape-joke or violence-joke need to be smacked down, but I think it needs to be done by individuals not the government.

    Would anyone want a Santorum administration to have the ability to mine the minutiae of your life to find something that could be used to prosecute in response to an article one wrote that eviscerates a policy position? In addition to the repercussions of that ridiculous law suit, irrelevant things could be brought up that further jeopardizes your employment, hurts your family, etc. Just think how the powers that be in Cranston could use this kind of power to shut up the Jessica Ahlquists of the world.

    Apologies for the tangent.

  11. 19

    On the other hand, how many times has Michelle Bachmann made a comment about being ‘armed and dangerous’ about something and not been prosecuted? Or is that carefully too vague to be considered a threat? I guess what I’m getting at is whether she should be considered a hypocrite for this.

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