Thursday, February 24, 2011

John Hinckleys on the Internet ~ By Phil Elmore

Each of us has seen viral videos featuring people who are obviously a little cracked. Be they narcissists or simply weirdos, all of us can think of someone who just might be dangerous. What ALL of those people will likely do, frequently on the Internet, is tell us what they think and how they feel. They are themselves the best predictors of their crimes.

We should listen. We should act.
As always, this a very thought provoking commentary by Phil Elmore. And as always, I had to think about this one for a while before posting it here. And what I thought of was, who exactly will be the "We" in "We should listen. We should act."? I would easily assume, by the context of what was written about in this column, that Phil was giving the word "We" a general meaning, as in you and I, the folks that are the average internet users, socially connected via the Web. That sounds innocent enough. So, why did that statement "We should listen. We should act." make me pause for a moment?

What I believe Phil was saying was that we could spot the "John Hinkleys" of the world by what they are posting before they go on a violent rampage. But are "we" experts in psycho analysis? Profiling? Most of us probably aren't, so then I would assume by "we should act," Phil was saying that we would be notifying authorities when we notice a possibly dangerous individual online.

But then, there is another problem with that! At what point do we decide the individual is a possible offender? Not only are we not really able to determine if and when a person will begin acting on what they may say online (it's a little above our pay grade), should we even consider that law enforcement officials could do anything prior to a crime actually being committed? Does that mean that police would be arresting people for "thought crimes?"

Well, for now, the courts handle competency cases, people can be committed for mental care, so there shouldn't be much to worry about.... Yet.

My whole point: Where does society draw the line between freedom of speech and what determines that a person is enough of a danger to society that they should be detained for a period of time? Could a person or group in power be able to "lower the bar" so that they could eliminate their political enemies easier? Could an opposing point of view be determined to be deranged and dangerous? Oh, wait...

John Hinckleys on the Internet
By Phil Elmore

February 24, 2011 ~ 1:00 am Eastern

© 2011

The image is burned into my brain. It was 1981. The man is wearing a three-piece suit. He has a mustache and he's wearing brown shoes; everything about him screams, "Late '70s, early '80s." He is wearing an enormous ring on one hand, which might be a class ring or might be something specific to the Secret Service. He is guarding President Ronald Reagan. He is standing on a sidewalk in Washington, D.C.; he is one of many in a milling, agitated crowd.

He is holding an Uzi submachine gun.

I first saw a picture of this agent years ago, while reading a compendium on handguns. The section on the Uzi featured the image. The picture was taken after John Hinckley Jr. was tackled, for he had just shot President Reagan, Press Secretary James Brady, a Wasington, D.C., police officer named Thomas Delahanty and Secret Service Agent Timothy McCarthy. The round that injured Reagan was reportedly a ricochet from the President's own armored limousine. While Reagan would make a full recovery, Delahanty retired. James Brady was permanently disabled. History was made.

The imagery sticks with me because it is a sight to which we in America are unaccustomed: a man with a submachine gun in plain view on a public street. It is imagery that quickly, simply and efficiently conveys foreboding and alarm. We see an image like that and we wonder when the next such shooting may occur. We marvel at the seemingly random nature of such horrors. We fret over what may endanger our families and ourselves. What we don't stop to think about these historic and iconic acts of desperation is that they are less likely to occur without some advance notice. By this I mean that, had the Internet existed in 1981, Reagan's would-be killer might well have revealed himself before the shooting.

Hinckley was, to put it bluntly, nuts. He was obsessed with the movie "Taxi Driver" and was more or less stalking actress Jodie Foster. He sent Foster mail and was, from all reports, fairly high-profile in his madness. Long before he tried to kill Reagan – ironically, imitating a movie character who was himself mentally disturbed – there was every reason for the people around Hinckley to believe he was capable of such an act. Is there any doubt that someone like that, were he just getting started today, would be posting to Jodie Foster fan sites, commenting on the movie's Internet Movie Database page, and erecting creepy Facebook pages devoted to the objects of his obsessions?

Jared Loughner, the infamous Arizona shooter, wrote online of various issues he had. There was no doubt to anyone reading those posts that he was emotionally disturbed. Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech murderer, was enamored of popular entertainment and disturbing movies like "Oldboy"; he took pictures of himself posing with a hammer, after the fashion of that film's protagonist. And then there was "Gunkid," born John Melvin Davis – a felon who holds the distinction of being, perhaps, the most infamous and prolific Internet troll ever to post online. "Gunkid" was sent to prison for possession of firearms and ammunition after breaking such laws previously. He was notorious for the outrageous things he wrote about guns, their applications, and his own ownership and use of them. He wrote ridiculous things, advocating methods that were unworkable, encouraging behavior that was actually dangerous. If he's not in prison right now, you can bet he's posting similar nonsense online under any of several tens of aliases.


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