Facebook Terrorism and the Growing Public Space

Nineteen-year-old Justin Carter is in prison with a $500,000 bail awaiting trial for a third-degree felony charge of terroristic threats. For a facebook status update. Following a particularly heated session of online gaming, the young Carter thought it a good idea to post the following comment to his wall:

“I think Ima shoot up a kindergarten / And watch the blood of the innocent rain down/ And eat the beating heart of one of them.”

Poor taste? Yes. Idiotic? Of course. Mentally deranged? Certainly. A legitimate “terrorist” threat? Probably not. I think the “eat the beating heart” bit should have been enough to tip authorities off that this was not a real threat, but rather the bitter ramblings of a social malcontent. But what were authorities to do? In the wake of Sandy Hook and Boston, the civil government feels they need to take any comment like this seriously.

And don’t get me wrong. The kid obviously needs some help. A lot of help. But, according to his father (who has not heretofore done a terribly great job in his role if this is any indication), Carter is getting the crap beaten out of him in prison. And there’s no way to get him out before the trial because, like most of us, Carter’s father doesn’t have $500,000 laying around.

Whether it was an ill-advised comeback, an incriminating photo, or just an inordinate amount of wasted time, most of us have something to regret about our dealings with facebook. But the Carter case brings up some very sticky legal issues. Is facebook a “public space”? Should the things we post to facebook be allowed to have legal import? Is the internet a “public space” for legal purposes?

Speaking of public spaces, we all know that we shouldn’t even joke about bombs at an airport. It’s just stupid. Once when I was an even less mature young man, I flew to Chicago with my father. I saw a sign stating what (to me) was rather obvious—that guns, explosives, etc. were not allowed on the airplane. I joked with my Dad that, “Oh, I guess I should probably leave my bombs here then.” I have never received a more stern look of disapproval from my dad. I had meant it as a joke. I’m glad my father, seasoned traveler and wise human that he is, was there to shut me up before I got myself arrested.

Facebook seems like a different venue than the airport though. It seems so casual and relatively anonymous. Should any leeway be given for youthful immaturity, drunken posting, or just plain stupidity? I don’t know.

One thing’s for sure though. With the rise of more intrusive means of government surveillance, even what you say in texts and in phone conversations could be used against you. The world is changing. What would have been dealt with by a stern look fifteen years ago could get you a stiff sentence now. Because the public space has reached beyond your door step.

This is one of the dangers (and benefits) of the explosion of the internet. It is very convenient to be able to buy something from a vendor in another country while sitting comfortably in your living room. But, thanks to the internet, you can also be at home (a seemingly “private space”) making public terrorist threats. The public space has invaded the private, and with the public space comes the jurisdiction of the civil government.

We are living among the first generation of people who will have grown up with facebook. Most of their lives will be documented by status updates, photos, and comments. They will have their follies and immaturities emblazoned on the face of the internet for posterity. I pity them. Fathers, teach your children to be prudent. And encourage them to disconnect from the world wide web and connect with the world wide world. You might save them from a world of pain and regret.