Death threats are everywhere these days. Knowing how to deal with both types–that is, the anonymous death threat and the in-your-face death threat–is essential for those of us who would prefer to survive to see another day and to do so without losing our emotional equilibrium.
Note: A goodly number of our regular readers know as much I do about handling death threats, or even more. For that reason, you may find the material herein redundant, or possibly even at odds with your own threat-handling “style”.
If that happens, please bear with me. It occurred to me that there may well be millions of good people out there who have no clue how to respond to these things.
This little dissertation is for them.
The most dangerous of all individuals, of course, is the guy or gal who never ever ever threatens anybody, silently preparing and then carrying out a deadly attack nobody saw coming. This psychotic sort, either the serial killer or the mass murderer, seldom if ever chooses a hard target. The most vulnerable members of society are chosen, and armed resistance usually stops the killer cold.
Hm. Armed resistance stops the stone cold killer cold. Enter the cops, exit the bad guy.
No, we’re not discussing the kind of killer cold that makes you sneeze and fogs your brain so that you flunk college exams you should have aced. That’s another topic altogether.
We are discussing the known, verbalized death threat, the cold killer. North Korea promising to target both South Korea and the United States. Radical Islam targeting everybody who’s not Muslim and half of those who are. The neighbors our friend Becky mentioned, who once threatened to shoot her sons. That sort of thing.
A case could be made for considering President Obama’s threat to veto anything Republican as a sort of death threat, killing liberty oriented legislation with the stroke of a pen…but we’ll stick to the direct, immediate demise of one or more human physical bodies for the purpose of this page.
Caveat: I consider myself qualified to discuss death threats and appropriate responses to such…but only up to a point. If you’re living in urban street gang territory or under the thumb of a Mexican drug cartel, sorry, but you’re on your own. I don’t know jack about how to respond to that–with one exception.
If you’re capable of running like a rabbit, getting the dickens outa Dodge; that’s more than worth considering.
At the age of sixteen or seventeen, I read a grim but powerful Harold Robbins novel titled A Stone for Danny Fisher. If I’m not mistaken (though I could be, memory being such a mutable, fickle thing at times), it was a line by a Mafia type in that book (or maybe it was Five Smooth Stones…) that taught the protagonist and me the reader as well,
“You don’t every threaten anybody. Don’t ever give them warning if you’re going to kill them, and don’t bluff.”
Paraphrased, no doubt, but the point is clear.
In our society, however, that totally sensible maxim is largely ignored. “I’ll kill you!” is a rash and sometimes worrisome statement uttered a bazillion times a day.
When to take it seriously, and what to do about it? Those are the questions, right there.
The In-Your-Face Threat: Child Level
Side note: Interesting, that 50 cent price showing on the spine of A Stone for Danny Fisher. I remember thinking prices were getting out of control when that book surfaced in my life. Fortunately, I was able to borrow a copy from a friend instead of buying it.
In my experience to date, most of the folks who will tell you to your face that they’re going to kill you…just don’t know any better. There are exceptions, of course. If you’re looking at a man (or a woman or a child, for that matter) who’s shifting a firearm or a spear or even a hefty rock in your direction, it’s best to conclude they’re neither bluffing nor incapable of following through. If you find yourself in that sort of situation, you may only have two options to consider:
1. Duck, or
However, that would involve responding to an attack. We’re talking about responding to a threat, remember?
One may well lead to the other, but they are not synonyms.
The most common “type” of death threat comes blurting from the throats of ignorant children and other immature individuals. Many a family is composed of siblings who almost routinely threaten to kill each other whenever one member of the group is frustrated by this, that, or even the proverbial “other thing”.
Long before Danny Fisher came along, our parents made that clear: “I’ll kill you” was off limits, a taboo ranking second in family importance, right behind calling somebody a “sonofab*tch” (because that was saying the victim’s mother was a b*tch, and since mothers were sacred, out came the razor strap).
(Or the fists, once you were old enough. I did snarl “You sonofa—–!” at at my father once, in full earnest, and the fight was on. But that, too, is another story.)
Not every family possessed a pair of parents with such wisdom, though. We got to hear it plenty, and I’m betting some of you have heard your own youngsters come up with unacceptable threats and/or promises over the years.
That sort of death threat…well, it has to be taken seriously, of course. Young boys especially have been known to terminate others, and then there’s Lizzie Borden with her axe.
But most of the time, a bit of “corrective education” will not only defuse the situation but will also help the threat-thrower to see the error of his or her own ways.
“Johnny,” you say calmly (!), “it’s not a good idea to say that to anyone, and here’s why.”
For me, the reminder that Thou shalt not kill was one of the Ten Commandments didn’t do much to convince me to mend my ways…but the realization that it made me sound stupid, yeah, that worked. Who wants to sound stupid?.
So: For the “child’s threat” made out of pure ignorance and lack of proper education on the subject, education is the answer–or at least your first line of defense.
But what about the burly grownup who may not know better, but should? The stranger or casual acquaintance or rotten neighbor who’s really, really not being very nice?
The In-Your-Face Bad News Bear
In most cases (I’m convinced), the man who bellows out his threat to remove you from the planet is attempting to apply a supersized dose of intimidation….and that’s it.
I’m none too sure about women who issue death threats. Some of those are without a doubt deadlier than their male counterparts.
Fortunately, I’ve not had a female openly threaten to kill me so far. With luck, that streak will hold.
Men, on the other hand, yes. There have been a few of those. One of them–let’s call him Jerry–will serve as a fine example of the species.
In 1969, Jerry was an auto mechanic who owned a service truck and made his living by helping stranded motorists. That his, he and his vehicle would come to you, fix you up and get you going. That truck was his baby and his livelihood. He worshiped that truck.
Between service calls, he also hung around Bair’s Truck Stop at Bozeman, Montana, where I worked for one entire week, jumping pumps and busting tires as needed.
Off to one side of the truck stop building, there was a parking area reserved for big rigs that needed flat tires changed. It was so posted, in big red letters painted along the building wall.
When there were no 18 wheelers in residence, Jerry violated that NO PARKING rule a lot.
Early one evening while I was on shift, a trucker pulled in with a flat left front outside trailer tire. An easy changeout, but Jerry’s truck was in the &%$!! way. I looked for him, even went on into the cafe and asked if anyone had seen him, but he was nowhere to be found, not even answering my call to the restroom stalls.
Well, he’d left the keys in his truck. I fired it up, moved it about 30 feet out of the way, parked it, got out, and started changing the tire.
I had just jacked the semi trailer axle up with a hydraulic jack and was straightening up with the jack handle in hand when Jerry came busting through the truck stop’s side door, yelling,
“Who moved my truck?!”
“I did,” I replied quietly. “It was in the way.”
He lost it. Verbally, he did. Cussed me up one side and down, finishing with, “If you ever touch my truck again, I’ll KILL you!”
Now, there were three possible unwise responses I could have made to that death threat. I could have,
1. Ignored him, which would not have worked. He was too worked up to let a no-response slide by.
2. Cowered, begged for mercy, apologized, whatever–which would have worked even less well, since a threat like that is also the move of a bully who has no respect for weakness. Besides which, going that route would have played pure Hell with my own self image.
3. Counter-threatened, offering to let him try right then and there, which would have escalated the conflict beyond the point of no return. Backing a fool into his own corner is the surest way to force him into doing something super-stupid.
Not that I hesitated to consider these options, if options they were. What I did was,
4. Finished straightening up, slowly, looking him in the eye and saying very, very calmly, “Well, if you do, make sure you get it right. ‘Cause if I make it out of the hospital, I will come looking for you.”
Then I stood there, watching him continue to sputter and fume until he finally turned and stomped off to retrieve his truck, still muttering.
What response #4 to the death threat did was this: It planted a seed of serious doubt in the threatener’s mind. He’d stupidly fired his heaviest verbal artillery with that threat and had nothing left in reserve. Yet his target (i.e. me) had not responded as he’d expected. The ball had been left entirely in his court, but with a statement of implied consequences should he choose to attempt to “go all the way”.
I hadn’t told him I’d do anything terrible. Hey, I was just going to come looking for him. That’s all.
But his imagination must have done wonders with that bit of raw material. I didn’t see Jerry for a couple of days after that, but on Day Three, he stopped by while I was working…and did everything in his power, short of of kissing my work boots, to let me know he’d really, really like to be my friend.
Calm recital of potential consequences. It’s the great counter-intimidator.
The Anonymous Phone Threat
I’ve received more anonymous over-the-phone death threats than any other kind, excluding the multitudinous forecasts of my demise since Al Gore invented the Internet. Of course, not since we went to cell phones only and had those put on the federal no-call list. So far, the underpowered cowards who utilize the UCT (Unknown Caller Technique) haven’t caught up to us on the cells.
But before that…definitely.
One that comes immediately to mind: Huron, South Dakota, 1975. My second wife and I were running an intervention group home for teenagers at the time. I never knew if the anonymous caller knew who I was or not. He claimed to know, though he provided no details to back it up.
He did, however, make one promise that needed to be carefully considered.
He promised I would die at a specific time, “Tomorrow at midnight.”
“I’ll be waiting,” I told him…and I was.
You may have noticed that not once have I mentioned calling the police when a death threat has been received. That’s because calling law enforcement simply, 999 times out of a 1,000, does not work. It accomplishes nothing–except maybe, if the caller is holed up somewhere across the street where he can watch your house, he gets to giggle in glee when he sees the police cruiser pull up in your driveway.
That’s about it.
We were fortunate in that there were only three teenagers living in the home at the time, all girls. Carolyn (my spouse) and I coordinated our plan of defense. Neither of us was particularly worried, but neither did we dismiss the possibility of murder and mayhem on the morrow at midnight.
I could take care of myself…but the girls needed to be away from the premises at the appointed hour.
Again fortunately, the Killing Hour was to be on a Friday night. No school on Saturday. My lady fired up the facility’s station wagon, loaded up the kids, and headed uptown for a late trip to a fast food joint at eleven-something p.m. She would return around 1:00 a.m.
No firearm–none were allowed in the group home for obvious reasons, and that also happened during my fifteen year period of “spiritual purity” (which thankfully was only a passing phase).
If the wannabe assassin brought a bazooka, of course, things could get sticky. Still, it was a huge old three story house, plus basement. I knew every inch of the place, and even well armed, he would not. Not even if he was a former resident.
Midnight arrived. Mighty Mouth did not. And that was that.
In sum: Again, the caller got no satisfaction because I did not respond to the call emotionally. Secondly, we took sensible precautions but did not overdo it. The kids were told, but not alarmed–because we were not alarmed.
We never heard from that caller again.
Internet Death Threats
If you’re a celebrity in this day and age, especially a conservative celebrity like Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, or Dr. Ben Carson, death threats via the Internet are literally a way of life.
For the rest of us, it’s usually not quite that bad…but they’re out there, all right, and I’ve received my share.
Most of those, I simply ignore. They come from far and away (although a few could certainly be local). What are they gonna do, hop a bus to Arizona, seek out our off grid home in the southern Cochise County desert, crawl through the thorny mesquite and bunch grass teeming with Mojave green rattlesnakes, centipedes, and scorpions–just to take a crack at Ghost32?
Well, maybe. Nothing is impossible.
But the odds, as well as the Force, would appear to be with us on this one.
They can’t even ding me on social media, ’cause I gave up on social media entirely, some time back.
Still, there has been one time (so far) that pretty much compelled me to “do something about it” when the death threats came pouring in. That was on January 8, 2011, within hours after the mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona, that targeted U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords.
I happened to have a pro-Sarah Palin Hub out there, one with “Targeting Gabrielle Giffords” in the title. The targeting was political (Gaby is a Democrat; I’m a conservative Republican), not physical (duh!), but the vitriol that hit my page was, in a word…impressive.
Hate mail knows no bounds. It also knows no English, nor is it overly familiar with the Congresswoman herself. There were comments pouring in like,
“You kiled Gavriele Giffers!”
“You desurv to DIE!”
And of course the ever popular,
“I’m coming to KILL YOU!”
After studying the incoming hate-flow for an hour or so, my wife and I decided together that the page needed to come down. Not because of the threats, but in respect for the fallen and the families of the fallen.
Sarah Palin, we soon heard, did the same with her “Targeting” page, for precisely the same reason and at almost precisely the same time. Left wingers bayed like hounds on the scent at that, certain she’d been intimidated by the mob’s “righteous” fervor.
Not likely. I’ve yet to see the mob that could intimidate Sarah.
So then: The bulk of Internet death threats? Water off a duck’s back. But sometimes, if the need is there, quietly moving a bit of your work off the firing line is not a bad idea.
I’ve often thought the unknown philosopher who penned the following line was onto something:
“Don’t sweat the little stuff…and it’s all little stuff.”
On the other hand, when you or your loved ones are under the threat of death, it may not seem like little stuff. In which case you’ve got the following options from which to choose:
1. Duck, if the missile’s coming your way.
2. Ignore it, if there’s no realistic likelihood of the threat becoming action.
3. Attack before the other guy can carry through (last resort, desperate measures, not generally recommended).
4. Stay calm while letting the threat-thrower know the consequences, should he attempt to follow through.
5. Organize a slick retreat, if there’s time and the circumstances make that advisable.
6. Prepare when the situation warrants…just in case.
Most of all, more than anything, don’t panic. There are times when our desert cottontail rabbits do that, freezing in place, and the coyotes eat them.