A brief history of death threats

This is a transcript of a Subtitle podcast episode.

Kavita Pillay: A note before we begin. There’s a brief discussion of a school shooting in this episode. It starts at about 11 minutes in and is done 15 minutes in, if you want to skip over it.

Subtitle is made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Hub & Spoke, audio collective.

Kavita Pillay: Once upon a time, something was rotten in the state of Denmark. And it involved a king — not Hamlet, but a real Danish king — who lived a century ago. One day, this king received a threat to his life, in the form of a handwritten letter.

Tanya Karoli Christensen: Which was written beautifully with a beautiful penmanship and with a very formal introduction.

Kavita Pillay: The sender wrote: “Circumstances over which I have no control command me to inform your majesty the heavy news that your majesty’s life is in the gravest danger.” By today’s standards, it sounds fairly genteel.

Tanya Karoli Christensen: It had a date and everything, and was built up exactly like an old fashioned letter.

Kavita Pillay: This is Tanya Karoli Christensen

Tanya Karoli Christensen: I am a professor of linguistics and Danish language at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark.

Kavita Pillay: And she researches forensic linguistics

Tanya Karoli Christensen: So forensic linguistics deals with any sort of connection or overlap between language and the law.

Kavita Pillay: And Tanya says that this very polished letter that was sent to the King of Denmark in 1910 is exactly what one might expect from a death threat of that era. Because while death threats and other threatening language are not normal forms of communication, the threatening language of any era tends to reflect the norms of that era.

Tanya Karoli Christensen: It’s fascinating to look into threatening language over time because we see it in the genre of threatening messages, that they reflect the time that they were written in.

Kavita Pillay: Humans have always threatened each other. Tanya says that we were probably doing it even before we had language. But for most of our existence on this planet, your threatener had to be close enough for you to hear them yelling or gesturing at you. We didn’t get around easily, so chances are you also knew the person who was threatening you. Then came postal delivery, which brought new dimensions to threatening language: distance and the possibility of anonymity.

Tanya Karoli Christensen: As long as we still have that letter format, threatening messages actually took the form, typically, of letters. So they will have a greeting at the beginning, sometimes with a slur word for the recipient rather than their name — sometimes just their name, sometimes a combination. And then in sections like in typical letters, and then a sign off at the end. It can even be “Regards,” or even sometimes, “Kind regards.” I mean, it’s very surprising to see those norms of politiness in written language that were especially prominent for that letter format carried on into the threats.

Kavita Pillay: Because here’s the thing about these messages: it’s not like anyone sits you down and says, “Here’s how to write a death threat.”

Tanya Karoli Christensen: You don’t know actually how to do it, you’ve never been taught. There’s no sort of template anywhere that you can look. You know, you don’t have a book as you do for a job application, right? You can always check somewhere. So how does a job application look, what should I think about? What should I think about when I want to write a threat to someone? No one knows.

Kavita Pillay: From Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America, this is Subtitle: stories about languages and the people who speak them. And fair warning that in this episode, we’re going to touch on some dark topics to try to better understand what it means to live through an era in which issuing a death threat is as easy as sending a Tweet. How did we get here? And how is the unprecedented surge of threatening messages reshaping us?

Patrick Cox: Kavi, when I think about written death threats, I instantly get this image in my head of cut-out newspaper headlines that are glued to a sheet of paper. I mean, is that a common thing?

Kavita Pillay: Right, the arts and crafts approach! In a way, this gets at Tanya’s point that we’re not taught how to write threats, so we rely on what we’ve seen. And definitely, in movies and TV, that hodgepodge of single letters and words — that was a familiar trope. It was in The Bodyguard, which starred Whitney Houston as an actress and singer who receives death threats from a stalker.

Short clip from The Bodyguard

Kavita Pillay: And in this scene, her stalker is watching her on TV while wielding these enormous glinting scissors plus a blade to cut up tabloid headlines to write out her name and a slur, then: “You have everything. I have nothing. The time is coming when you shall die.” And it’s all very ominous. But it’s also been played to comedic effect, like in The Big Lebowski.

Clip from The Big Lebowski. “I received this fax this morning. As you can see, it is a ransom note.”

Kavita Pillay: The ransom note is one of these cut-and-paste letters that you mentioned, saying that Lebowski’s wife is being held hostage, for a million dollars. The writers of these films used the familiar conventions of the time to convey a threat in a way that viewers could easily recognize. But both The Bodyguard and The Big Lebowski are very much nineties films; by the end of that decade the internet has firmly entered our lives, and our written communications are transforming.

Patrick Cox: So if The Big Lebowski were set today instead of the nineties, the ransom note might be, I don’t know, a tweet from an anonymous troll, or something like that?

Kavita Pillay: Or it would look like a Subreddit, or be broken up like a series of texts, because that’s what the vast majority of communication looks like today. And it would almost certainly be sent from a phone or computer. Because as ordinary written communication moved from handwritten and printed materials to screens, so did threats. And as the internet made communicating immediate and more casual, threats also became more immediate and casual. And today, because so much written communication happens on social media, written threats now look like DMs and Facebook posts. And, as crazy as it sounds, a lot of threats these days include emojis.

Patrick Cox: I think I have a pretty primal sense of what makes a message threatening, but I’m not sure I could define it.

Kavita Pillay: Yeah, it seems a bit like that old definition of pornography: you know it when you see it. Tanya says that the basic idea of a threat is for the sender of the threat to communicate future harm toward someone else.

Tanya Karoli Christensen: A very simple instance would be, “I’m going to kill you.” Everybody can recognize that as a threat. And it has these definitional characteristics. It has a representation of the sender. I, “I’m going to kill you” and it has the harm, “kill,” and it has the victim, the one that you are communicating to: “you.”

Kavita Pillay: Now if someone says, “I’m going to kill you,” they don’t need to follow through for you to be scared.

Tanya Karoli Christensen: Because the main point of a threat is not actually to commit you to performing the acts that you’re talking about. The main point of a threat is to intimidate the recipient.

Kavita Pillay: And there are many subtle ways to intimidate people. So we need to look at context.

Tanya Karoli Christensen: So context is everything when we are trying to assess whether a threat is dangerous or not.

Kavita Pillay: For instance, Patrick, I could share your address publicly because you’re having a big party and you want lots of people to come.

Patrick Cox: Oh, thank you!

Kavita Pillay: The other thing is, I could share your address because I’m angry at you and I’m trying to threaten you.

Patrick Cox: Oh right, doxxing?

Kavita Pillay: Yes. And doxxing means releasing someone’s personal info or their whereabouts, typically with the intention of harming them. Having our information out there is a norm of this era. So using that information to threaten people has also become a norm of this era. Threats are on the rise because of the internet, and while we should never dismiss a threat against someone, some threats are more serious than others. And I wanted to know: how do you separate signal from noise? So I talked to a forensic psychologist.

Lisa Warren: Ironically, when I look at movies and TV series that depict my profession, the drama often appears far less dramatic than what actually happens in real life.

Kavita Pillay: This is Lisa Warren. She’s an Australian forensic psychologist and she specializes in threats to kill.

Lisa Warren: I don’t have car chases in my work. I’ve never kind of rappelled out of a helicopter — I’ve got a colleague who did that — but it’s not that kind of drama. It’s the drama of humans trying to find the most effective way they can to convey to those around them what it is that is bothering them and what they need.

Kavita Pillay: Lisa says that some categories of threats are inherently more worrisome than others: domestic violence threats are the most concerning. But after threats by family members, she says the highest risk group that she deals with are people known as persistent complainers.

Patrick Cox: Oh that’s interesting. Persistent complainers, but that sounds more annoying than threatening?

Kavita Pillay: I thought the same thing, but it turns out a persistent complainer is someone who has a grievance and they’re heavily invested in it being addressed. And they’ll spend months, or sometimes years, pursuing some kind of resolution. And the more time they spend without getting the outcome that they seek, the more desperate they get. Lisa says that the case that showed just how high risk persistent complaining can be happened in Scotland in the mid nineties, and it involved a man named Thomas Hamilton.

Lisa Warren: Thomas Hamilton was accused of behaving inappropriately with boys that he was taking away on outdoor recreation camps. And he argued that he did no such thing and that it was extremely unfair that his reputation was ruined. He complained for a very long time in a range of different ways about the damage that had been done to his reputation and about the damage that had been done to his life with these allegations.

Kavita Pillay: Thomas Hamilton spent four years writing letters to parents in the community where he lived. He wrote to various local and national authorities, including the Scout Association — they had barred him from their organization years before. And in these letters, he also mentioned a grudge against a local school, the Dunblane Primary School.

Lisa Warren: In March 1996, he wrote to the Queen.

Patrick Cox: He wrote to the Queen of England?

Kavita Pillay: He wrote an appropriately formal, typewritten letter to Queen Elizabeth. He addressed it to: “Your Majesty.” He signed it, “Your Obedient Servant.” And he was writing to the Queen because she was the royal patron of the Scout Association.

Lisa Warren: And said to her in the letter that she was his last resort. And that he wanted her to support that his reputation should be restored. That, of course, didn’t happen. And he went to the Dunblane kindergarten and committed a homicide against kindergarten children. Which is the Dunblane massacre.

TV news clip: “The small town of Dunblane in central Scotland is tonight in deep shock and mourning after the massacre today of 16 children and their teacher in a local primary school. The children, aged between ages five and six…”

Patrick Cox: Dunblane really stuck in the memory of everyone in the UK, because it was the only mass shooting at a school there’s ever been in Britain. Imagine that! And right afterwards, the government made it even more difficult for citizens to acquire firearms.

Kavita Pillay: When Lisa said the name Dunblane, I got chills because it was such a singular event. But I didn’t know that the shooter had written to the Queen. And Lisa says that for people like her, who study threats to kill, Thomas Hamilton writing, “I turn to you as a last resort.” That was a huge takeaway from the Dunblane massacre.

Lisa Warren: It is one that, like a lot of exceptional, extreme cases, caused us to pause and rethink. And look at one of the risk factors with persistent complainers, which is this idea of last resort statements.

Patrick Cox: Last resort statements. So are they considered threats?

Kavita Pillay: Well, for folks like Lisa who spend their days trying to figure out which threats deserve attention, and resources, the context of a middle-aged man who was a loner, who’s been shunned from the community for a loathsome offense — he’s spent years trying to restore his reputation, and then he writes to a head of state saying “I turn to you as a last resort.” So it’s not an explicit threat, it’s not like, “I’m going to kill you,” but given the context, it’s an implicit threat. Nowadays of course, figuring out whether someone is going to act on a threat is a totally different proposition.

Patrick Cox: It’s podcast recommendation time! Every other week, Our Opinions Are Correct takes on a topic that’s related to what we know– science and to what we imagine– science fiction. And that’s fertile territory for great discussion: everything from the fate of the universe to how to write a good fight scene. The hosts of Our Opinions are Correct are Charlie Jane Anders — she’s an award winning author of several science fiction novels — and Annalee Newitz, a science journalist who writes for The New York Times and the Atlantic. I especially like the episodes where they focus on something commonplace like food or crime or money. And then they look at things through the prism of science and sci fi, which often changes how we think about them. The podcast is Our Opinions Are Correct. You know where to subscribe: Apple Podcasts, and everywhere else.

Kavita Pillay: With the rise of the internet, it’s never been easier to fire off a threat. And it’s also never been easier to become the target of one, for reasons you might never imagine. Take the case of a woman who shared a story on Twitter about taking her four year old daughter to the dentist. Her daughter cried when she saw that it was a “boy dentist” and when she found out there were no “girl dentists” at that office, she looked at her mom and said, “Why did we come here?”

Patrick Cox: That sounds like a story that might go viral on Twitter. But you’re telling me this in an episode about death threats, Kavi, so I’m worried now.

Kavita Pillay: It did go viral on Twitter. I laughed when I saw it. But within a few hours an American conservative media commentator retweeted it and said that the mom was letting her child believe that sexism was widespread. Others jumped on that. They accused the mom of having a feminist agenda. Someone called the child things that I’m not going to repeat. Next thing you know, a cute story about a girl going to the dentist is drawing threats of violence and death threats against this family.

Patrick Cox: Yikes, that’s scary and totally absurd at the same time.

Kavita Pillay: Right, I don’t have to tell you that we’re in a politically fractured era — even a cute story about a child going to the dentist can become a rant against feminists. But it also comes back to screens, because interacting with someone on a screen is very different from being face to face with them. The screen itself can affect our ability to fully understand that we’re interacting with a human. Tanya Karoli Christensen explains it like this:

Tanya Karoli Christensen: We also know from psychology that there’s something called the disinhibition effect. So this means that you lose some of your inhibition — some of your barriers against the ways that you feel you should normally act, some of your norms for social action — you lose them when you sit behind a screen. So because you cannot see the other person face to face — you don’t have any eye contact typically — you don’t think of them as a person. A full person with a full life.

Patrick Cox: That sounds a bit like road rage.

Kavita Pillay: Right, that’s probably our closest precedent, a machine that can be used for good purposes or bad, and that little bit of glass and metal gives us just enough distance from our fellow drivers to affect how we behave towards them. The difference with the internet is that screens can make our interactions less personal and more personal.

Lisa Warren: Social media and the internet enable us to learn so much more about each other and each other’s culture, gender, backgrounds.

Kavita Pillay: And because of that, Lisa Warren, the forensic psychologist, she says that threats are taking on a new level of specificity and personalization.

Lisa Warren: So I’m seeing threatening statements that are increasingly personal, very ad hominem, which is an unusual turn of events when you’re talking about two people that have never met one another.

Kavita Pillay: This can happen in any realm. Lisa consulted on a university case in which a professor was being targeted, but not only was that professor a target; people seen in photos online with that professor, that academic, they were also being targeted.

Lisa Warren: And it was very personal. They looked at the academic’s research. Talked about how they were less of a person because they were publishing in this journal and not that journal. There was clearly quite a degree of research that had gone into this campaign, and this particular person was targeted for a number of months. So we move from being in the realm of just looking at the threatening behavior to being very clear that this is now a stalking case.

Patrick Cox: It’s really tough just keeping your head around just how much the internet has reshaped threats in just a matter of a few years. Legally speaking, has the law been able to keep up?

Kavita Pillay: It’s different in different places. In the US there’s the added element of state laws versus federal laws. In all states, harassment and stalking are crimes. Most states also specify electronic methods of harassment, but not all. It also varies around the world. In Denmark, Tanya Karoli Christensen notes that there’s a specific statute that concerns serious threats against someone’s life or well-being. And a benefit of having a specific statute like that is that you can then collect data about it and try to understand patterns. How is the growth in platforms affecting threats? Are there changes in reporting patterns? What happens when there’s a major event like the pandemic. But data has its limits. And that brings us to the 800-pound gorilla.

Frances Haugen: The choices being made inside of Facebook are disastrous, for our children, for our public safety, for our privacy, and for our democracy. And that is why we must demand Facebook make changes

Kavita Pillay: Frances Haugen testified in front of Congress in October 2021 because she was a data scientist and engineer who worked at Facebook. And she came forward with a huge trove of documents showing that Facebook had the data to prove that its platform was being used to incite violence around the world. And that’s everything from the Jan. 6 attack on the US Capitol to religious violence in India to ethnic violence in Ethiopia. Here she is testifying to the UK Parliament.

Frances Haugen: It might be a place like Myanmar, that didn’t have any disinformation classifiers, the labeling systems, no hate speech labeling classifying systems, because their language wasn’t spoken by “enough people.” They allow the temperature in these countries to get hotter, and hotter, and hotter, and when the pot starts boiling over, they’re like, “Oh no, we need to break the glass. We need to slow the platform down.”

Kavita Pillay: Frances Haugen’s argument is that Facebook should not be allowed to make those decisions on their own. Right now, Facebook and all social media sites are allowed to govern themselves. And she makes the point that we don’t let other massive industries run themselves without government oversight. We regulate banks. We regulate cars. And when an industry is shown to be dangerous, we put a stop to it. Think of big tobacco. Meanwhile Facebook, with its nearly 3 billion users, is running free with no government oversight. And we have no idea how many threats are passing through their platform every single day.

Patrick Cox: One last thing. You told the story right at the beginning of the episode about that Danish king who’d received a handwritten death threat. Did they ever find out who wrote it?

Kavita Pillay: Yes, that was a threat against King Frederik the 8th. And the guy who wrote the threat demanded 10,000 kroner, which I guess that was a lot of money back in the day. He wrote, he wanted to move, “on the other side of the ocean, to America.” Who knows what happened to the letter writer; the case was never solved. And the King died a few years later of natural causes.

Kavita Pillay: That’s it for this episode. Special thanks to Michael Alday at CodeBlack Threat Management, to Ulrike Lohner at Heidelberg University, Tammy Gales at Hofstra University, and to Jim Fitzgerald. Thanks also to Alyson Reed and everyone at the Linguistic Society of America.

Tina Tobey is our sound designer and Allison Shao manages our social media and newsletter. The newsletter comes out every couple of weeks. We keep it short and newsy and a bit jokey.

Subtitle is a member of the Hub and Spoke audio collective. We’re a bunch of podcasters all interested in telling stories that would otherwise slip by unnoticed. Like Open Source, the world’s first ever podcast. It’s a show about arts, ideas, and politics. Host Christopher Lydon always has great guests: people like Susan Choi, Rebecca Solnit and Cornel West. Listen to Open Source and all the Hub and Spoke podcasts wherever you’re listening to this.

We’ll be back in a couple of weeks. See you then.

Subtitle is made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

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A podcast about languages and the people who speak them. Co-hosted by @patricox and @kbpillay. Twitter: @lingopod