You don’t really want to be a member of this club, but we’ll have you (not that we want anyone else to suffer). We like company, of course—the more people in our group, the less self-pity we sometimes feel–but we’d only hesitantly and regretfully take you in, clasping your hand in a sympathetic way, leading you to sit down in a hard plastic chair (it’s all we have, sorry), telling you kindly, “Please take a seat and relax.”

Those nasty death threats you received will all be forgotten….well, quickly forgotten by others and the police, sure, but by you? Ehh, maybe never.

Some of us have dealt with more numerous, serious and ominous death threats than others. Of course, any death threat is–like a holiday fruitcake–an unasked for gift you’d rather not have received. It just makes you worry about how you’ll get it out of your life before it makes you really sick.

 

The Breakfast Club, of which we all wanted to be part, didn't we? Breakfast Club members probably also got death threats...just because.

So why are we quibbling about who got it worse? Quantity, quality—none of it matters anymore when it comes down to death threats. There’s no place for one-up-manship in The Death Threat Club.

What is a death threat, anyway? Some people like to debate this. Some people will argue, for example, that, “I’ll kill you, bitch!” is actually a vague death threat, even though it seems like a pretty forceful statement, and that, “I hope you fucking die, you fucking bitch!” as terrible as it is, is really a wish for your death rather than an actual death threat.

Meanwhile, “I’m coming for you with my—insert name of fancy but scary gun—and I’m gonna splatter your brains all over your kitchen,” is a statement some will still argue might really be a threat of bodily harm rather than an indisputable death threat.

Splattered brains may not always—although they do in most cases—lead to death. Therein lies the controversy about whether or not this is actually a death threat. Stupid, yes. Overly persnickety, to be certain.

What about, “You will die?” Is that a death threat, or just a statement of fact? Does tone of voice and body language add to the threat? What about face-to-face delivery of said threat? Does that up the ante?

A whispered “You will die” over the phone is creepy, sure, but what about a shouted-in-your-face statement, complete with flying spit and pointed fingers?

If “You will die,” is supplemented with something like, “You and your children will die a slow, painful and humiliating death, and I will be sitting there laughing,” I would personally call that a threat of death.

Would you? Some wouldn’t. But why are we arguing about what does or does not constitute a death threat? I can’t really understand it.

What it comes down to, I think, is this question: Would you be happy if someone said this to you, these words, in this way? If you wouldn’t, then it’s—no matter how else you might describe it—a Very Bad Thing to Say. Death Threats definitely fall under the category of Very Bad Things to Say. Upon this, I think we can all agree.

Any threatening statement that includes the words “I want you to…” or “You will…” along with the words “death” or “die” is, to my mind, a death threat.

What do you think? And why does it make people feel better, in some cases, to dismiss the complaints and/or fears of those who have received threats of death?

Perhaps we don’t want to think that decent people’s lives are threatened all the time, for incredibly petty reasons. If we admit that, after all, we have to admit that everything is really fucked up. And we could be the next person in line for some horror.

Should people who have received death threats just get over it, as many people tend to say, and ‘move on’ with their lives?Should they speak up and/or fight back? The teacher in me must add to this the questions: Why or why not?

How do you feel, for example, about Frances Fox Piven, a professor and activist from the 1960s who worked to advocate for the plight of the poor? Should Piven “get over” the fact that Glenn Beck rants, almost nightly, that because of what she wrote 40-plus years ago, she is a destructive threat to the USA’s economic system? Piven has received countless death threats as a result of Beck’s near-constant—and totally weird—references to her writings.

Piven has endured months of threats, courtesy of Glenn Beck’s fan base, but recently called in the FBI and law enforcement to investigate. It took her a while; Piven must have been trying to be calm and thoughtful (but why suffer like that?), and now she’s had enough.

In the meantime, if Piven tragically dies at the hands of another, who will we agree is to blame? The man who essentially called for her head, or the person who might kill her? Is part of it her own fault for simply being a liberal activist and publishing some “radical” ideas nearly 50 years ago?

What if Piven has a heart attack from the stress of the attacks on her character and all the threats of death? Whose fault would that be? The people behind the attacks on her character? Her own fault? Her ancestors’ fault—for passing on bad genes or a propensity toward high cholesterol?

Speaking of activists getting threats, we recently celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Everyone knows that King was, by the end of his life, the victim of countless threats—ironic (deeply, troublingly ironic), since he was a staunch advocate of non-violence. Lesser men would have been scared into silence and into hiding out for the sake of self-preservation, but King reportedly said, “If someone wants to kill me, there is really nothing I can do about it,” and carried on with his work and his life until he was felled by an assassin’s bullets.

Can we do something about death threats? Most people would say yes, call the police. But what can the police actually do?  A death threat is a felony, but to make the charges stick, they require all sorts of proof. They require many witnesses. Death threats are sadly routine and in many cases, difficult to prove.

Some people have their death threats taken seriously, though. I’m talking politicians. And yet—they get so many death threats, it starts to become just a sad fact of life for them. Public figures have to brush the threats off and put faith in their security teams (should they be able to afford them).

It doesn’t take much to earn a death threat, apparently.  Selena Gomez has reportedly been getting death threats since she was photographed hugging and kissing Justin Bieber. If one teenager smooching another on a yacht (paparazzi photos of this scene were published in a number of teen fan mags) can result in death threats, it’s pretty clear that our society doesn’t have its priorities straight.

Bristol Palin and her siblings have also been said to have received death threats. Now, Sarah Palin, their mother, seems the more likely target—although I will never say that death threats against anyone are justified; all death threats are reprehensible—but it goes to show how even tangential public figures are not exempt from threats.

So why would any sane person threaten the life of another? (We’ll leave the clearly insane out of the equation now, purely for the sake of an unpolluted argument.)I would never do this for a few reasons. First, I think it’s the height of cruelty and incivility to threaten another person’s life, in any way. Second, it’s the Golden Rule, baby: I wouldn’t want someone to do this to me (even though some already have). Third, I wouldn’t want to get into trouble.I’m a good girl. As a matter of course, I don’t threaten people’s lives. That just seems savage, in my opinion.

Why don’t more people think this way?

Several people threatened my life on different occasions (I won’t get into it) and in blog comments to me (yeah, I know—blog comments. Sounds dumb, doesn’t it? Well, wait until it happens to you and then tell me it doesn’t freak you out nearly as much as a face-to-face comment. I have received both). Hiding behind the internet, behind the mail, behind the phone, are all typical ways that bullies muster courage to be incivil, so threats that come in via blogs are thought to be–as some people have told me–a blogger’s own damn fault for daring to create a public platform.

Whether it’s my own fault or not, I am now, unfortunately, a member of The Death Threat Club. I just hope that my membership will expire after a few years. Maybe the five year mark—as cancer patients anticipate with bated breath and many prayers—will be the turning point. It seems more likely that death threats can never be completely erased from our memories, but at least we will know, eventually, that we have survived.

While I wait for the time to pass and my memory to fade, I am parking my tush in this hard plastic chair and making small talk. There’s plenty of room here for you, too, should you care to join us. Just be sure–next week–to bring some coffee. We’re polite, gentle souls, and we share in The Death Threat Club, you know.

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ELIZABETH COLLINS is a writer and writing/literature teacher, whose blog (http://prettyfreaky.blogspot.com) attracts an international following to its mix of memoir, personal and political essays, and quirky observations. Collins, a graduate of the University of Iowa's MFA program in English/Writing, won the Columbia University Nonfiction Prize in 2001, as well as other writing awards. Her essays and short stories have been published in a variety of literary magazines, including The Massachusetts Review, Natural Bridge and Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art. Collins currently writes YA novels--and her latest, also entitled Pretty Freaky, is about a foreign adoptee's quest to help her adopted American boyfriend find his birthmother. She is also at work on a memoir about teaching.

32 responses to “The Death Threat Club”

  1. Irene Zion says:

    FIRST!

  2. You may be first, but you also have to say something. It’s fun to be the first one to open the jar of peanut butter, but if you don’t carve it up, then you don’t really get all the glory.

    Best,

    EC

  3. Irene Zion says:

    Sorry, I never get to be first and I didn’t realize it and I was reading it before I realized! Lucky I did. I’m now in the “I was first to comment inanely” club. I’m not sure why that gives me pleasure….

    I’ve been working on evil eyes and such threats and I think what you need to do is cook some corn oil and throw in a tablespoon of cumin seeds and 2 pinches of ajwan powder, (Indian grocery stores,) cook till it smells wonderful then throw in some fragrant rice like basmati and some frozen peas, (because who can be bothered shelling peas for rice?) Then let it cook and eat it with your family with other stuff and the evil eye will be helpless before you.

    Promise.

  4. I am totally allergic to cumin. Love it, but I really can’t go there.

  5. Matt says:

    I’m in the Death Threat Club! Do we get membership cards?

    Actually, now that I think about, I’m also in the Attempted Murder club. Maybe they could be affiliates.

    I have this theory – totally unfounded in anything resembling hard science, based only on personal and anecdotal evidence – that people who’ve actually seen a real death, I mean really actually watched someone die (in a hospital, seen a murder, whatever) don’t make death threats except under the most extreme of circumstances. Because they’ve seen, first hand, what a serious matter it is: the light goes out, the last breath leaves the body, and what once was a living, vital human being becomes bag of meat. That’s a hard thing to witness, and an even harder thing to wish on someone once you’ve actually seen it. Only those who are ignorant of the true cost of such a threat make them cavalierly.

    The Internet is partially, though by no means wholly, responsible for a demonstrable decline in civility, as it provides such an convenient means of expressing an opinion with anonymity (this is both a good and a bad thing). As a thought experiment, it’s interesting to see what people who might consider themselves “good” in other aspects of their life will do when they think they can get away with it.

    Whether a threat is taken seriously or not is up to the recipient, but my take on the matter is this: if you’re going to make an extreme threat, expect a proportionate response.

  6. Well put, Matt. I will make some cards and send you one. I’ll send anyone a membership card who wants one. The Attempted Murder Club sounds really freaky! I am also a member of the “Had a Gun Pointed at Me Two Times” club. That’s not a fun club, although I did not actually fear for my life when that happened. The first time, I was being robbed at work, the other time was just a loony person I did not take seriously (but I should have). Anyway.

    Our society has most definitely become too cavalier with the death threats. If Selena Gomez is getting them for kissing some kid, then–no matter how die-hard Bieber’s fans may be, no matter how in lurve they think they are with him–people just aren’t understanding how serious and scary it is to send someone a death threat. I am not saying that a young girl threatening Selena Gomez on a fan page should go to jail for the rest of her life–not at all–but some education of the general populace is, I think, in order.

    It’s all about what most people can get away with, though–as you point out. People wouldn’t say such things if they actually got into serious trouble for it.

    Thanks for reading!

    Liz

  7. J.E. Fishman says:

    When I was ten a kid on the school bus once said, “I hope your baby sister dies.” It might have been in response to something mean that I’d said, but I don’t remember what initiated the anger.

    Really nasty threats like that have a way of wiping out everything else, because they change the context. And, when you think about it, that must be what those who threaten intend to do. They can’t live with the challenge that you — or, more likely, your ideas — present to them, so they’re wishing you away, wishing for a new context.

    These have to be incredibly weak people at the core, but it doesn’t make them any less pernicious. How sad that anyone would have to put up with them. Maybe the best response would be: I”ll die when you get a life!

  8. Interesting…people certainly react to feeling threatened (for whatever reason–ideological, political, etc.) by being threatening in return–just more so, but it’s all so insane, so uncalled for.

    Our moms have probably all told us that bullies only bully because they’re sad inside or had a difficult childhood, but try as hard as I might, I can’t muster up much compassion for someone who makes threats against another’s life. Once we grow up, the excuses for our behavior should cease.

    The threat makers should hear: Get some freaking therapy, and go to anger management classes or something, but don’t make death threats…especially against total strangers. Maybe if they endured some of the same taunts, they’d realize how it actually sounds.

    But Joel–you still remember what was said to you when you were 10! So these scary statements just never go away. And I am sure you took what was said to you as a death threat–its impact was as bad–even if it wasn’t a direct threat against YOU, but rather, a completely innocent person.

    Thanks for reading.

    Best,

    EC

  9. dwoz says:

    strange datapoint: the utterly abstract, tangential connection the issuer of the threat usually has to the subject of the threat.

  10. Yeah, you would think that the issuers of threats would have some serious, personal connection to the subject in order to get so carried away–but even then, it’s overkill (punny!).

    Thanks for reading!

  11. Greg Olear says:

    One would like to think that what happened in Arizona would soften the discourse, but I don’t think Glen Beck and his ignorant ilk are smart enough to see any connection.

    Salman Rushdie would have something to add on this topic, unfortunately.

  12. Absolutely, Greg…and yet, did you notice how within a mere 48 hours or so of Gabrielle Giffords and many other people getting shot in Tucson, it became somehow verboten to link the ranty discourse to actual violence? Crazy.

    Salman Rushdie certainly had it the worst…a fatwa on his head…notice how the nastiest ideas come from the most staunchly religious people? That is so ironic.

    Best,

    Liz

  13. The Crusades (seriously savage), the Spanish Inquisition…we won’t even go there. Too many bloodbaths to name, all for the sake of Catholicism. Charming. I thought things were supposed to be more lovey-dovey (esp since the New Testament), but alas, they aren’t really. But at least the Pope is sort of okay with social networking. Not that I care.

  14. Simon Smithson says:

    Elizabeth, you got death threats? Actual, honest-to-God death threats?

    That fucking sucks. Jesus. I’m really sorry to hear that.

    Although if the truth comes to light that it was because you were busted making out with Justin Bieber… that would be a different story.

    I agree, I think it’s crazy that the world has gotten to a place where discourse about literally ending the life of another person is taken so lightly. It’s a big deal, and it can’t be condoned – unfortunately, too often, it is.

  15. Yes, but mine were not nearly as bad as some other people’s, although–as I point out–it’s really not the quality that matters. They still take a toll.

    What’s ironic is that certain people would threaten me (anonymously) and then gloat about the threats they made using their names in other groups. It’s like no one even CARES about what they said; it’s become some twisted badge of honor, in a way, to threaten other people.

    I wrote this mostly because I am trying to figure out why other people–outsiders–are so quick to deny or diminish the threats that other people may have received. We don’t want to think that death threats are so common or pervasive, but I think they’re much more common than most of us even know.

    Thanks for reading!

    EC

  16. […] The Nervous Breakdown thenervousbreakdown.com/ecollins/2011/02/the-death-threat-club/ – view page – cached There is so much disagreement about what constitutes a threat of death. Have you been suitably threatened? Could you be in this special club?, There is so much disagreement about what constitutes a threat of death. Have you been suitably threatened? Could you be in this special club? Show influential only (1) $(‘#filter-infonly’).change(function() { var el = $(this); var url = document.location.href; var checked = el.attr(‘checked’); if (checked) { document.location.href = url + ((/?/.test(url)) ? ‘&’ : ‘?’) + ‘infonly=1’; } else { document.location.href = url.replace(/[?&]?infonly=1/,”); } }); […]

  17. Bricks outside of window wrapped in magazines with the words “I will kill you” on them. Email death threats. Phone death threats. The list goes on. Yeah. Death threats. They suck and a lot of people are stupid who make them.

  18. That’s right–you’ve gotten lots of hate mail and death threats, haven’t you? Awful.

    Tell us: does it get easier the more you receive (do you start feeling immune)? Or is it always just as unnerving?

    I am also wondering about the argument I’ve gotten, which is, “Don’t say anything about anything and then you won’t get threats.” That’s completely absurd. I mean, sure–staying under the radar is safer, but if we all did that…it doesn’t make sense.

    Thanks for reading, Nick.

    Best,

    Liz

  19. I posted a while back about an unusual publication I once put out, and the truly bizarre mail it generated. While I can’t say what I received ever contained legally qualifiable death threats, some of the comments, suggestions, and intimations were nevertheless terrifying. And trying to parse the difference between the banality of anonymous threats and any real danger is, as you noted, a very strange pastime.

    At any rate, I am sorry to hear you’re dealing with this.

  20. Thanks, Sean. It’s good to know one isn’t alone in The Death Threat Club, as selfish as that sounds! The point, though, is that receiving a terrifying comment, suggestion, intimation, etc., is never welcome, and I doubt it’s ever deserved, either.

    Best,

    Elizabeth

  21. I enjoyed your distinctions between the various verbal threats. You so often hear these days people resorting to things like, “I wish you’d fucking die!” I think that it’s a certain level of laziness. We resort to the most extreme statement rather than saying precisely what we feel… After all, when we tell someone that we’d like them to die it’s usually a way of saying, “I’m quite annoyed with you right now for the following 20 reasons…”

    I have, however, been on the receiving end of a number of death threats, which were told in one or two of my old TNB posts. The best was a 2 page essay that went into some brutal details.

  22. Hi David. Thanks for reading. Yeah, you’ve gotten some really crazy threats, haven’t you, for daring to criticize Korea?

    It’s all so insane…talk about unwarranted, absurd, completely over-the-top responses to some insights you happened to voice on your blog.

    You are right about the laziness of really extreme statements/threats. Rather than thoughtfully articulate our exact grievances, we (we as people, I mean–not me and probably not you, either, since you know how it feels) just go for the one big obnoxious sentence that–seemingly–extinguishes the argument and makes us the inevitable winner.

    What I am finding so interesting about all of this is how many people qualify for membership in this club–and all of us writers. Hmmm.

    Best,

    Elizabeth

  23. D.R. Haney says:

    I once had someone — a stranger with whom I hadn’t even interacted– wish death upon me online, but it wasn’t a true death threat. I was perplexed by it. He didn’t like my attitude in a few interviews he’d read, so he decided I required a permanent remedy.

    It takes so little. Make a wrong move in traffic or step on a toe in a bar, and next thing you know, you’re on someone’s imaginary hit list — or maybe it’s not imaginary.

  24. Perpelexing, insulting, super scary–death threats exact a wide range of reactions. But they all get reactions, which I suppose is why they’re made. The person making the death threat wants to be heard loud and clear…even if he or she is totally out of line.

    I had someone write to me the other day and tell me–with concern, I believe–that I should never have used my own name online, that I shouldn’t include my cell phone number in the signature line of my e-mails. It’s too late for that now, isn’t it? But he wrote, “You don’t know me from Hannibal Lechter,”–and he had a point.

    We just don’t know how scary some strangers could be.

    Thanks for reading, Duke. Hope you’re well.

    Best,

    Liz

  25. Jessica Blau says:

    Oh, God, I’m so glad I’m not in the Death Threat Club. Something like that would really undo me. I feel bad if someone gives me the finger in traffic. I want to pull up beside them and apologize as I can’t stand the idea that I did something that made this person so pissed off that they’d want to give me the fuck-you finger!

  26. Ha–I know. I hate getting yelled at in any forum. After a while, though, it just rolls off (well, not really).

    I, too, remember every finger I’ve ever gotten.

    Thanks for reading, Jessica.

    Best,

    Elizabeth

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