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Bozelko column: Death threats are a political problem, not just a criminal one

Chandra Bozelko
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Daily Comet

Columns share an author’s personal perspective.

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Seven health directors in California and Ohio’s health director resigned because they were receiving death threats over their policies requiring people to wear masks. Martin Gugino, the 75-year-old protester shoved to the ground by a Buffalo, New York SWAT team, can’t go home from the hospital now that he’s recovered because he’s received too many threats against his life, according to his attorney.

In April, the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia assigned special detail to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and one of the leaders of President Donald Trump’s Coronavirus Task Force, because he had been threatened. Contact tracers are getting guns pushed into their virtual faces on Facebook, reported BuzzFeed News this month. Even patients trying to recover from the novel coronavirus have been terrorized with another danger to their survival: threats.

These aren’t crimes of pandemic passion or eruptions of frustration at the racial divide that’s been unapologetically exposed in the aftermath of another fatal shooting by police; menacing people predated COVID-19 and the deaths of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks.

In 2019 Muslim U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) received a letter claiming that “a very capable person with a very big ‘Gun’” would shoot her at the Minnesota State Fair. In 2018, a man called the Boston Globe repeatedly for a week promising to shoot staffers in the head, along with their dogs. Christine Blasey Ford, Tara Reade, anyone who’s unfortunate enough to be the subject of national discourse seems to get threats.

Reporters relay the stories of these threats, but what’s missing is the subsequent arrest and prosecution of the person issuing these deadly warnings. The Department of Justice charged the man who called the Globe and another man who threatened to “put a bullet” in Omar’s head but he phoned that threat in; the person who mailed the state fair threat is still at large. No one has reported an arrest of anyone who’s threatened health directors, Fauci, Gugino, Ford or Reade, which should be easy given that such criminal cases would be public record. Nothing’s being hidden from us; these perpetrators are getting away with it.

And we don’t know how many of them there are. It’s troubling how few statistics we have on death threats given how ubiquitous they are and the fact that there’s at least one statute that covers “terroristic threats” - meaning threatening violence in order to cause distress or chaos - in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. In fact, there’s very little way to track whether death threats are on the rise or it’s just media coverage of them that’s bloated.

The FBI doesn’t track the number of death threats reported. The Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics doesn’t have any useful nationwide count, either. Uniform Crime Reporting statistics track only eight crimes (murder and nonnegligent homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, motor vehicle theft, larceny-theft and arson) and threats of violence - while considered violent crimes - are not specifically parsed out. Threatening charges are part of the 3,231,700 arrests for “all other offenses” listed in national statistics in 2018.

If we don’t know how many threats are issued every year, we don’t know if the problem is growing or whether these menacers are being held accountable, in which case the death threat is becoming the easiest crime to get away with.

That’s an extremely dangerous problem not just because we may be talking about an unchecked crime spree. Death threats are designs on short-circuiting the political process.

We’re not talking about angry rants from anonymous kooks. The threats are serious enough to make their recipients resign from public administration positions and enable their replacements to implement opposite policies.

That’s exactly what happened in Orange County, California, where the new health director reversed course on a mask-wearing rule, and in Ohio, where the new director decided to open up county fairs for the summer when they had been presumed to have been canceled. Threats affected these policy about-faces. We don’t know what else will change - legislative votes, protest participation, revelations of politicians’ bad behavior - because someone fears that their life will be threatened if they make a public statement or simply do their job.

The fact that we aren’t tracking the prevalence of death threats more effectively should frighten all of us. It’s almost like we’re licensing a coup.

Chandra Bozelko writes the award-winning blog Prison Diaries. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChandraBozelko and email her at outlawcolumn@gmail.com.