Sunday, June 30, 2013

Should the Austin, Texas, Police Slap Justin Carter's Wrist and Let His "Terrorist Threat" on Facebook Go?

People say the darndest, dumbest things.

I've known this since I was in kindergarten and someone called me the N word for the first time. I had no idea what it meant, but I didn't like the way it sounded. Ironically, the kid who uttered it was black, and he explained that it was a term of endearment for tall people, launching my childhood-long complex about always being the tallest student in class.

The years of stupid words that followed didn't prepare me for the ones I read some 19 years ago when I dared to dislike Mary Chapin Carpenter's Stones in the Road album (minus "Shut Up and Kiss Me," her only No. 1 country hit and one of the genre's best songs of the '90s) in my People magazine review of it. A few weeks after my critique ran, I received a letter from someone who didn't appreciate my unkind comments about the work of such a talented and acclaimed singer-songwriter.

"Young Helligar," the missive began, giving birth to a new workplace nickname that was intended to partly mock the reader and also acknowledge the fact that I was one of the youngest people on staff. And he was just getting started. His ire built over the course of the one-page handwritten letter, in which he blasted my taste in music and my lifestyle ("cushy," he called it, obviously unaware that I was living in a tiny studio apartment in Alphabet City), and, at the end, he firmly put me in my place: "One day, I'm going to hunt you down, and when I find you, I'm going to... laugh in your face!"

"..."? Really? Just laugh? For a second there, I had thought my life was in danger, that he was going to track me down and blow me away. Then I got to the punchline.

I know, I probably shouldn't have wasted even a split second on worry. When rational thinking returned, I somehow couldn't imagine a disgruntled reader traveling to the Time and Life Building in New York City to eliminate me (or even to simply giggle at me) just because we didn't share the same music taste. I know how rabid fandom can be, and as a blogger, I've gotten the nasty comments to prove it (especially when I once made the huge mistake of dismissing NCIS!), but sometimes readers only want to read opinions that line up with theirs. I try not to take it personally.

But then, you can never be too safe. That must have been what the Canadian woman who reported Justin Carter of Austin, Texas, to the police in February must have been thinking. During a Facebook altercation with someone involving an online video game called "League of Legends" (the playing of which may have been his biggest crime), Carter, 18, responded thusly to a charge of insanity made by the other person:

"Oh yeah, I'm real messed up in the head, I'm going to go shoot up a school full of kids and eat their still, beating hearts"

The comment must have hit too close to the December shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut that left 20 children and six faculty members dead. When the Canadian woman Googled Carter and found an old address for him that was near an elementary school, she panicked and reported him. The police responded by charging Carter with making terrorist threats and putting him in jail, where he's been since March 27. He now faces up to eight years in prison if he's convicted.

If you didn't think that Facebook could ruin your life, well, here's proof. As an adult, Carter should know better. When you write stupid, offensive things online, sometimes it's not enough to brush it aside with an "lol" afterthought. What he wrote was not particularly funny or clever, and I wouldn't be surprised if it didn't get a single "like."

But Carter's biggest crime (aside from playing silly video games) was typing without thinking and making a bad joke, which is hardly a felony. No, you can never be too safe when it comes to guns and children, but there are certainly more effective safety measures out there than locking up a kid for three months and threatening to ruin his life. Haven't they had plenty of time to thoroughly investigate Carter and determine if he's an actual threat?

I'm not going to cite the First Amendment as a viable defense as the online petition calling for Carter's release did because I think freedom of speech is already overused by people to defend harmful comments and ideas. But even without the "lol" and "jk," he was clearly being facetious. A slap on the wrist, or a fine would have sufficed, but if they must waste taxpayer dollars and try him in court, does he not qualify to be out on bail until then? Is the Austin legal system afraid that he'll get a gun and make good on his "threat"?

In a sense, I get it. In past incidents, ignoring obvious warning signs (like mental illness, or a history of borderline psychotic behavior) has led to tragedy, and the police probably want to avoid similar negligence on their watch. But this is not the way to go about it.

While they are focusing their attention on what is most likely a harmless, ignorant kid, dangerous people are out there developing sinister plots that they can easily carry out because of ineffective gun-control laws, terrible campus security and a legal system that is more preoccupied with punishing misguided sarcasm on Facebook than making preemptive strikes against bonafide threats.

I only hope it doesn't take a real one unleashing its deadly fury on Austin or some nearby town to help them see the error of their overreaction to Justin Carter's Facebook folly. It's time for them to move on and fight the real enemies of state, security and little innocent children.
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