Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A tale of two people

This week, I read of two people (Eric S. Raymond aka ESR, and Molly Norris) who, for differing reasons, received death threats from fanatics and responded in their own fashion. ESR was was working with a group of hackers attempting to provide covert communications support to the Iranian dissident movement.Molly Norris provided the inspiration for “Everybody draw Mohammed” day. They both had interactions with the FBI as a result – and both developed and executed survival plans.

Molly Norris, apparently at the behest of the FBI, has gone underground – left her identity behind. This is in response to being on the receiving end of a fatwa, or death threat. She (or her former publisher, anyway) likens it to going into Witness Protection, but at her own cost. Ann Althouse comments here, and David Bernstein here. Both have long and involved comments threads (at time of writing, the Volokh Conspiracists were in the lead, 302 to 237). One thing that Prof Bernstein suggests is that the FBI be providing Ms. Norris with protection (at the government’s expense, presumably) and that they hunt down the issuers of the fatwa. He goes so far to suggest that President Obama offers her the hospitality of the White House – “to demonstrate that Americans’ free speech rights will not be subject to suppression by violence.”

ESR, on the other hand, has kept his life in his own hands. Rather than hide, and (implicitly) demand protection, he chose to continue his life, more or less status quo. The only change he made was to carry a firearm “almost constantly”, and blog about it. He lightly touches on the issues and mindset of carrying constantly, and why he chose this method of response to the death threat. He thinks through the threat, and what his options are, and concludes (for well-explained reasons) that his response is an appropriate one.

In reading both cases, I was struck by the drastically different responses to what amounts to the same threat model. Ms. Norris is a higher-profile target of fanatics (not helped by the publicity surrounding her "thoughcrime”, or latterly her “disappearance”), and ESRs opponents are possibly more coherent – but both are exposed primarily to “random” violence from religiously-motivated fanatics. ESR is likely correct in his assumption that his own threat is fading, while Ms. Norris’ may never totally fade.

But ESR’s response is sustainable – he changed his life to the extent necessary to carry several ounces of metal and plastic on his person, and extended the habits of observation he learned as a child. The rest of his life is unchanged – he can still visit his family, hang out with his friends, &c. In particular, he can continue on without having to rebuild himself. Ms. Norris’ response is, frankly, unsustainable. Sure, in the short term, she can pretend to be someone else. Until the money runs out, or someone recognizes her, &c. She “lost seven pounds because of stress” in a month just from the public controversy surrounding her initial “pronouncement” of "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day." I bet that living on the lam will be even more stressful for her. For that matter, I suspect that living in Condition Yellow would be fairly stressful for her too – but if she had chosen that path, she would be able to keep her social support structure; her job, family, and friends, pets if she has them, &c. That’s got to be less stressful than digging a hole and pulling it closed behind.

Heaven forbid I’m in such a situation, but if I ever was, I know which path I’d choose.


  1. Carrying everywhere and being alert?

    Wow, and here I haven't even got the death threat yet... :D

  2. Heh. I was going to say something about "you'd be surprised how many people aren't alert and don't carry", but, I know better. You wouldn't be.

    It was more a way of pointing out that you don't have to live in fear, the way the cartoonist is. And it's not like she lives in a disarmed state like I chose to do; WA is shall-issue state.


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