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The first time I received a death threat, I was a college student.

The threat was relayed to me through a series of telephone conversations. There was no Internet yet, as we now understand and use it, which meant the individual who threatened me couldn’t send an e-mail or post cryptically and ominously on some social-networking site. At the time, I filed a deposition with the local police department. I did so not because I was afraid for my life, but because I was advised that a paper trail would protect me. I might need it, I was told, if I killed my attacker in self-defense when and if he showed up on campus again.

Today, thanks to the relative (and often illusory) anonymity of the Internet, it’s much easier to issue threats. If you also command on the Internet a following of some size, it is relatively effortless to rally those followers to threaten and harass others. The Internet, because it offers free (or mostly free) interactive communication around the world to participants who need never reveal their real names or exact locations, is the ideal medium for such harassment and terrorism. It is the preferred method of reaching out to attack everyone from teenage rivals to celebrities to political opponents.

At the end of October, the Scottish Daily Record reported that “X-Factor” contestant Katie Waissel had received death threats through the Internet – threats serious enough that her parents have “asked the police to intervene.” (Waissel is apparently so unpopular that she has hate pages devoted to her on Facebook.) A week before that, a man who used Facebook to issue “Columbine threats” to students and employees at the Cobequid Educational Centre pleaded guilty in court and was scheduled to be sentenced in January. Only a day before that, a Montreal man who went by the online handle “David Darkkiller” was released on bail after his arrest for “uttering threats online.” The shotgun he said he purchased was to be used to kill his former school teachers – as well as the evil “elves and gnomes” that were somehow harassing him.

In an equally bizarre but perhaps more understandable story, Jennifer Petkov, the inhuman 33-year-old mother who admitted to taunting the dying 7-year-old daughter of a neighbor (with whom the cruel Petkov had been feuding), has received a slew of Internet death threats in response to public coverage of her behavior. She’s also lost custody of her children. In Philadelphia, a man was charged late last month with posting death threats on the video-sharing site YouTube. The target of Norman LeBoon’s online rants was Virginia Republican Eric Cantor, whom LeBoon referred to on camera as a “pig” and an “abomination.” Meanwhile, in Illinois, a woman “targeted” by Glenn Beck has filed a report with the FBI after receiving Internet death threats. She apparently declined a request to begin a political debate with a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, and it was this act that brought her to the attention of Beck’s Fox News commentary show.

Also last month, an American who threatened the lives of the “South Park” creators online (because the animated Comedy Central program supposedly insulted the Islamic prophet Muhammad) pleaded guilty to charges that he supported a Somalian terrorist group with ties to al-Qaida.

These are death threats over cartoon shows, and they are not the most insipid or pointless of the hostilities regularly vented online. Even Paul the Psychic Octopus received death threats through the Internet, presumably from football fans perturbed by the creature’s World Cup picks.

Internet death threats happen every day. They occur all over the world. More people than you realize are affected. As a journalist, I have more than once received threats in e-mail or posted online. After my columns on fluoride drew the wrath of conspiracy theorists, I received many invitations to consume poison and die for daring to express my opinion. More than one martial artist irritated by my editorial work in that field has used the Internet to let me know about it, too. Some threatened to file frivolous lawsuits; others simply threatened.

Recently, a well-known martial-arts figure offended by my work encouraged his fans to file false abuse reports with the social networking sites I use – an act of interference with my business that has prompted me to file legal action of my own in response. Not satisfied with these petty tactics, however, the same individual took to his discussion forum, saying, “Ya know, the problem is that [expletive] sucking little [expletives] like Phil Elmore are allowed to live at all. …” He went on to exhort his followers to “fatwa” me. “Wipe him out, destroy him utterly,” this fellow wrote. “[EXPLETIVE] HIM UP!”

After giving this person an opportunity to retract his threatening statements (which his followers subsequently tried to spin as a “joke” or a “prank”), I filed a report with the Internet Crime Complaint Center. The IC3 is a “partnership between the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the National White Collar Crime Center (NW3C), and the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA)” whose mission is to “serve as a vehicle to receive, develop, and refer criminal complaints regarding the rapidly expanding arena of cyber crime.” When you are threatened online, credible death threats should be reported to your local authorities. Your next step, however, should be to inform the IC3, if only to establish a paper trail that establishes you as the victim of another’s criminal behavior.

To post a death threat online is among the most cowardly things a person can do. As these pusillanimous acts become more common, facilitated by modern technology, we must increase our personal vigilance. We must also respond to such threats with vigor and with conviction, using every legal option to make those who threaten us pay for their crimes.

A death threat is an act of terrorism. We must never let terrorists intimidate or silence us. We must never, through inaction or capitulation, allow terrorists to win.

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