||Ban the Net?|
Columbine threats, "internet intoxication" and desperate lawyers
Once again, current events have prevailed against continuing our discussion on the "m" word. Sorry, but I saw a piece on Dateline last night, and I just can't let it go by without comment.
The story was about Michael Ian Campbell, the 18 year old Florida student who was arrested in connection with threats against Columbine High School. Apparently Campbell saw the Time magazine story last December -- the one featuring a cover photo of gun-toting Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris actually standing in the Columbine cafeteria on April 20th. Whereas most of us were horrified at that photo, Campbell saw it as an opportunity to "have a little fun" with a Columbine student. So he found one on America Online, and sent her an "instant message" warning her to stay away from school the next day because he was going to "finish what was started on April 20th" and didn't want her blood on his hands.
Cute little stunt. It closed the school for two days.
I live near Columbine high school. I attend Mass and the Life Teen program with many Columbine students, as well as the families of several of the victims. I know how traumatized they all were. The release of the Klebold/Harris videos and the Time story had already revived all of the horrible memories, and pretty well ruined their holiday season. Then this. Campbell's stunt caused a lot of fear and unnecessarily reawakened a lot of very painful, very traumatic memories.
But what really got to me was the way Campbell and his lawyer are responding to all of this. Campbell, to his credit, does seem genuinely sorry and genuinely horrified at the results of his little prank. He apparently (and inexplicably) had no idea of the seriousness of what he was doing. He said on Dateline that he's the kind of guy who, given the opportunity, would like to give the students a hug and tell them everything would be okay. Kinda hard to believe, given his behavior the one time he did have the opportunity to communicate with a Columbine student.
Campbell, however, believes that he is innocent because, in his own mind, he wasn't making a threat. He was just play-acting. It was pretend.
His victim, however, apparently wasn't privy to that information.
I think, unfortunately, that this reflects the thinking of a lot of people -- teenaged or otherwise -- today. What matters isn't what you do, but only what was going on in your head at the time. Only your intention is important. He communicated a clear threat, and yet he didn't "mean" it to be a threat.
How often to we hear thinking like this? "I know I had sex with her and then dumped her, but I didn't mean to hurt her." "I drove drunk, but I didn't mean to kill anybody." We seem to think that absolves us. It doesn't.
Campbell's attorney, a gentleman named Ellis Rubin, is going one step further. Rubin claims that Campbell cannot be held responsible for his actions because he was under the influence of "internet intoxication."
Yes, according to Rubin, the internet itself has the power to place people into such an altered state of mind that they are incapable of controlling their actions. He claims that Campbell was "hypnotized" at the time. He asks whether a ``virtual threat made in a virtual state of mind'' is the same as a real threat.
Okay, let's suspend all rational thought for a moment, and enter into Rubin's world long enough to assume that this bizarre assertion could actually be plausible. What if, as he claims, the mere act of sitting at a keyboard and typing messages to another person were powerful enough to place us in a state of hypnosis, a state where we cannot be held legally liable for our actions. That would get Michael Ian Campbell off the hook, to be sure. But there are other ramifications I'm not sure Ellis Rubin would like.
If, indeed, the internet possessed the ability to rob us of our rational thought processes, if it could induce us to make dangerous threats for which we could not be help liable, if it could induce us to perform actions which lead to the closing of a school and the traumatization of literally thousands of people, then it would need to be controlled. We certainly couldn't let these irresponsible threats and God-only-knows-what-else continue, can we?
The result would be chaos.
There would only be one solution. If the internet caused people to completely lose control of their actions, if they couldn't be held liable for any damage they did while logged on, then the internet would have to be banned. Period. How else could we protect innocent people and maintain control of our society?
I wonder how Rubin Ellis would feel about that.
This is what bothers me. People (read: attorneys) grab onto any bizarre twist of logic they can find to suit their purposes at the moment. Rubin Ellis doesn't want his client to go to prison. So he latches onto this half-witted scheme, wraps it in a lot of legal-ease, and hopes he can con a jury into buying into it. But he doesn't think past his own immediate goal. What are the long-term ramifications of this kind of thinking? Does it make sense in terms of the bigger picture?
A better approach? The truth. Michael Ian Campbell is a kid who played a really stupid prank, not fully understanding the consequences. Give that to a jury, and let them sort it out.
Because, in the end, it's not the convoluted concoctions of a desperate lawyer which will set us free. It's the truth.