A nineteen-year-old has been jailed since March 27, 2013. He's been beaten — by other inmates, allegedly. He's been subjected to solitary confinement, sometimes stripped naked. The authorities have rejected calls for his release on a reasonable bail his family could possibly afford. All of this has happened because he wrote something online that concerned or offended or enraged the state.
What's that? Syria? Saudi Arabia?
The nineteen-year-old is Justin Carter. Carter, like many Americans his age (or mine, for that matter) plays online games and indulges in the exaggerated trash-talk common to that culture. In the course of an argument involving the game League of Legends, he got into a dispute with another player, who called him crazy or "messed up in the head." That is a rather mild epithet coming from an online gamer; it's nothing like Carter might have gotten if, for instance, he'd had the bad taste to Game While Female.
Carter reacted the way many do in online gaming culture: with overblown rhetoric. Riffing of the idea he was crazy, he wrote: ""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." Carter's family says that he immediately followed that post with "lol" and "j/k," further demonstrating — as if further demonstration was necessary — that the words were satirical bluster, not a threat anyone rational would take seriously.
But not everyone is rational. A woman in Canada — the land where freedom of expression is subservient to fee-fees — saw the post, used Google to find Justin Carter's contact information, and reported his "threat" to local police. Local police and prosecutors obtained search and arrest warrants — thoughtfully provided here at Ars Technica — and arrested Carter, eventually charging him with felony "terroristic threats."
Police and prosecutors maintain that Carter's "threat" should be taken seriously. They dispute his and his family's assertion that he followed his post with "lol" and "j/k." In evaluating the credibility of the police and prosecutors, consider this: in the affidavits seeking search and arrest warrants, they completely stripped Justin's "I think Ima shoot up a kindergarten" post of any context whatsoever, deliberately excising all mention of the online dispute, the connection to gaming, or his other posts. In short, in seeking a judge's authorization to arrest Carter and search his home, police and prosecutors made it appear to the judge that he had simply woken up one day and posted that on Facebook. That was breathtakingly deceitful.
The search of Justin Carter's home yielded no weapons and no evidence of dangerousness.
But District Judge Jack Robison has set Justin Carter's bail at half a million dollars. His family can't afford that. He has been beaten by other inmates — a common experience for younger, weaker defendants confined pre-trial — and confined naked in solitary, allegedly over suicide concerns.
Prosecutors sought and obtained an indictment against Justin Carter for a third-degree felony "terroristic threats" under Texas Penal Code section 22.07. To prove that charge, prosecutors will have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Justin Carter had "the specific intent to place any person in fear of imminent serious bodily injury." District Attorney Jennifer Tharp is determined to pursue that theory, despite the context that makes it patently ridiculous.
Whose fault is this? My fault. Your fault. Our fault.
New Braunfels Police Lt. John Wells invokes the magic word:
The Comal County District Attorney's office hasn't responded to our calls, but police in New Braunfels, Texas, who have investigated the case, say in a time of heightened sensitivity to school shootings, their interest is in preventing violence when they can.
"The whole situation is kind of unfortunate," said New Braunfels Police Lt. John Wells. "We definitely understand the situation that Mr. Carter is in, however he made the comments, and it is an offense. We have to … protect the general public and specifically, in this case, with it involving schoolchildren, we have to act. We take those very seriously."
The magic word is "children."
We have fully and foolishly subscribed to the "Think of the Children!" culture. In an era in which violent crime has plunged dramatically, we think it is up. We think so because the media — hungry for money and attention — serves us bloody context-free meat every night. We think so because law enforcement — hungry for more funding, more power, more toys — relentlessly tells us we are in danger and that our children are in danger and that the only answer is to trust and fear. We are bid to trust not ourselves and our good judgment, but law enforcement. We are bid to fear not the power of the state, but the criminal forces arrayed against us and our children — forces that only law enforcement can hold at bay.
We accept this.
But who poses more of a risk to us, and to our children: the Justin Carters of the world, or the state that will file dishonest and misleading warrant applications against him, the state that will confine him to be beaten and stripped naked in a cell, the state that will confine him for a crass joke?
The state tells us that Justin Carter or Cameron D'Ambrosio are threats, and that we must trust the state's special powers to see danger behind teen bluster and dipshititude, and trust the state's choice to employ force against them. Is that rational? Carter and D'Amrosio haven't used force wantonly or recklessly or against children. The state has. The state actors we are supposed to trust have. The state, not D'Ambrosio or Carter, tase a naked autistic 11-year-old wandering confused on a roadside. The state, not Carter or D'Ambrosio, smother a man with Downs Syndrome to death for trying to watch Zero Dark Thirty twice. The state, not Carter or D'Ambrosio, will beat, tase, and pepper-spray your child when they mistake his speech impediment for "disrespect." The state, not Carter or D'Ambrosio, will tase your 86-year-old bedridden grandmother because she may pose a threat from her bed. The state, not Carter or D'Ambrosio, will arrest you for videotaping in public and then harass and threaten you for talking to the media about it. Violence against animals is often identified as a tell of pathological violence and dangerousness; the state, not Carter or D'Ambrosio, mow down dogs like Autumn wheat. The state, not Carter or D'Ambrosio, will confront you in the street if your child is the wrong skin color and bark at you when you don't grovel thankfully. If you criticize Carter or D'Ambrosio, they will subject you to trash-talk; if you criticize state actors, they will put up wanted posters of you or send police to knock on your door in the middle of the night or serve you with a search warrant. The state, not Carter or D'Ambrosio, thinks that concern for Constitutional rights is evidence of criminality. The state — through judges and prosecutors — lets armed state agents indulge in this behavior with impunity.
Lt. John Wells, defending the prosecution of Justin Carter, tells us that we need to act, that we need to take threats seriously, that we need to protect the general public, that we need to protect schoolchildren. I agree.
But if we are rational — if we look at evidence — then who represents more of a threat to us and our children? Is it Justin Carter's community, or John Wells' community?
I think my children and I are more at risk from the state than from Justin Carter — particularly because I choose to criticize the state.
If you care about this story, you can look at the petition Justin Carter's family has put up, or write to the officials named above. Be very careful what you write. This is America, I suppose, but still — be very careful what you write. I'd feel guilty if you were arrested, confined on half a million dollars bail, beaten, and locked naked in a cell. You know — for the children.
Let me leave you with a question.
The moral justification of the state to use violence against Justin Carter — to arrest him by force, to search his home by force, to confine him with people who (predictably, as his captors expected) beat him, to set an impossibly high bail to prevent his release, and to lock him naked in a cell because their acts may have made him contemplate suicide, all on a transparently weak and unconstitutional charge — is generally assumed and rarely questioned.
But if I were to ask "is it morally justified to use violence against the state actors who did that to Justin Carter?" — that would be seen as extremist, disturbing, dangerous.
What's more dangerous — their conduct, or my question?
No lol. No j/k.
Edited to add: An anonymous donor has helped the family make bail. Excellent.
Edited Again To Add: Jack Marshall has a good idea for a protest: quote Justin Carter on social media on August 1.