Net threats not taken lightly

Dangerous messages: Anonymous online offenders are tracked down and must face legal consequences.

March 13, 2001

DEATH THREATS cannot be taken lightly, no matter what the medium.

A threat to kill or harm made through the anonymous ether of the Internet is the same as that delivered by telephone or mail or news media or messenger.

Authorities must respond promptly to such intimidation and thoroughly assess the menace. Offenders should be dealt with by stern legal punishment.

That's why a Frederick County teen-ager is in police custody, accused of sending threats via the Internet to students at California and Colorado schools where gunmen wreaked havoc.

No charges of physical violence have been placed, although the suspect is facing felony counts of assault and harassment.

The mental violence inflicted on victims is real and powerful, even if the threat is not actually carried out. Those who prey on people already devastated by violence inflicted on friends and acquaintances know full well the horrific impact of their threats.

The episode should emphasize that the Internet is not anonymous and untraceable. Law enforcement can track down offenders who use electronic messaging for patently sociopathic behavior, regardless of whether the perpetrators use aliases, filters or multiple server handoffs.

The myth of Internet communication is that it promotes ultimate privacy and freedom of expression. It frequently does provide anonymity in chat rooms, bulletin boards and role-playing domains. But there are limits.

When antisocial behavior crosses the criminal line, it has no such absolute protection. The individual must expect to bear the full consequences and responsibility for these acts.

Instant messaging - contacting persons who are online and open to messages from anyone - particularly invites dangerous behavior. It was allegedly used by the Frederick suspect to contact two Santee, Calif., high school girls with explicit violent threats.

Threats too often lead to physical violence and untold suffering. They are never meaningless.

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