PROMISES TO KILL

 

▪ CHAPTER SEVEN ▪
PROMISES TO KILL

“Man is a coward, plain and simple. He loves life
too much. He fears others too much.”
Jack Henry Abbott

“I am going to kill you.” These six words may have triggered more high-stakes predictions than any other sentence ever spoken. They have certainly caused a great deal of fear and anxiety. But why?

Perhaps we believe only a deranged and dangerous person would even think of harming us, but that just isn’t so. Plenty of people have thought of harming you: the driver of the car behind you who felt you were going too slowly, the person waiting to use the pay-phone you were chatting on, the person you fired, the person you walked out on—they have all hosted a fleeting violent idea. Though thoughts of harming you may be terrible, they are also inevitable. The thought is not the problem; the expression of the thought is what causes us anxiety, and most of the time that’s the whole idea. Understanding this will help reduce unwarranted fear.

 

That someone would intrude on our peace of mind, that they would speak words so difficult to take back, that they would exploit our fear, that they would care so little about us, that they would raise the stakes so high, that they would stoop so low—all of this alarms us, and by design.

Threatening words are dispatched like soldiers under strict orders: Cause anxiety that cannot be ignored. Surprisingly, their deployment isn’t entirely bad news. It’s bad, of course, that someone threatens violence, but the threat means that at least for now, he has considered violence and decided against doing it. The threat means that at least for now (and usually forever), he favors words that alarm over actions that harm.

 

For an instrument of communication used so frequently, the threat is little understood, until you think about it. The parent who threatens punishment, the lawyer who threatens unspecified “further action,” the head of state who threatens war, the ex-husband who threatens murder, the child who threatens to make a scene—all are using words with the exact same intent: to cause uncertainty.

Our social world relies on our investing some threats with credibility while discounting others. Our belief that they really will tow the car if we leave it here encourages us to look for a parking space unencumbered by that particular threat. The disbelief that our joking spouse will really kill us if we are late to dinner allows us to stay in the marriage. Threats, you see, are not the issue—context is the issue.

 

For example, as you watch two people argue, an escalation of hostility that would otherwise cause alarm causes none if it is happening between actors on stage at the theater. Conversely, behavior that is not normally threatening, such as a man’s walking up some stairs, becomes alarming when it is an uninvited audience member marching up onto that same stage. It is context that gives meaning to the few steps he takes.

A single word between intimates, perhaps meaningless to others, might carry a strong message of love or threat, depending on context. Context is the necessary link that gives meaning to everything we observe.

 

Imagine a man arriving for work one morning. He does not go in the unlocked front door where most people enter the building but instead goes around to a back entrance. When he sees someone ahead of him use a key to get in, he runs up and catches the door before it re-locks. Once he is inside the building, he barely responds as a coworker calls out, “The boss wants to see you.” “Yeah, I want to see him too,” the man says quietly. He is carrying a gym bag, but it appears too heavy to contain just clothes. Before going to his boss’s office, he stops in the locker room, reaches into the bag, and pulls out a pistol. He takes a second handgun from the bag and conceals both of them beneath his coat. Now he looks for his boss.

If we stopped right here, and you had to predict this man’s likely behavior on the basis of what you know, context would tell the tale, because to know just one thing changes every other thing: This man is a police detective. If he were a postal worker, your prediction would be different.

▪ ▪ ▪

Though knowing context is key to predicting which threats will be acted upon, people are often reluctant to put it ahead of content. Even some experts believe that threat assessments are aided by identifying and considering so-called key words. The assumption is that these words are significant by their presence alone, but the practice is rarely enlightening. As a person creates a communication, his selection of words is part of that creation, but they are instruments, not the final product.

 

Look at this list of words:

 

SKINRIP
PEELWARNING
BLOODKILL
MUTILATEDBOMB

 

A key-word enthusiast could enjoy plenty of alarm from a single paragraph containing kill, blood, and bomb, but you decide if the final product merits concern:

The whole car trip I was cold right down to my skin. The wind would rip along so hard I thought it would peel the roof off. And here’s a warning: Don’t ever travel with relatives. Blood may be thicker than water, but trying to kill time listening to Uncle Harry’s mutilated jokes bomb was just too much.

Conversely, look at this list of words and the context in which they appear:

TIDY

PRETTY

FLOWERS

BEAUTIFUL

WELCOME

Tidy up your affairs and buy some pretty flowers, because God has ordered me to take you to his beautiful place, where he is anxious to welcome you.

Here is a letter I once assessed for a client:

As I walked with you yesterday, the sheer grace of your body thrilled me. Your beauty gives me a starting point for appreciating all other beauty, in a flower or a stream. I sometimes cannot tell where you let off and the beauty of nature begins, and all I want is to feel your body and share my love with you.

It is context that makes the prose in this letter so alarming: it was written by a fifty-year-old man to the ten-year-old daughter of a neighbor. (The man moved soon after we interviewed him; he is now in prison for a predictable offense: repeatedly propositioning an under-age girl to have sex with him.)

The phone message, “Hi honey, it’s me” might, all by itself, communicate a terrible threat if it is the voice of an ex-husband whom a woman has tried to avoid by fleeing to another state and changing her name.

▪ ▪ ▪

As I said, context is much more important to predictions than content, and this truth relates to safety in some significant ways. For example, as I write this I am in Fiji, where from time to time a person is killed by something most of us don’t consider dangerous: a coconut. Given that the trees are often very tall and the coconuts very large, if one falls on you, the impact is comparable to having a bowling ball dropped on your head from the roof a five-story building.

 

Are there ways to see the coconut hazard coming? Absolutely, there are many, but to detect them would involve evaluating all the factors that influence a coconut’s readiness to fall. I might have to climb the tree, test the stem strength, consider such things as the moistness and density of the fiber, the weight of the coconut, etc. I could measure the wind velocity and the rate at which similarly ripened coconuts have recently fallen from nearby trees. Ultimately, however, there’s just one practical pre-incident indicator. It’s the sound of a coconut falling through dried bark or leaves. Most of the time, this warning comes much too late to exploit. In other words, it could be the last sound one hears. So is there a way to avoid this lethal outcome?

Yes, there is, but I needn’t sit at the base of a tree contemplating the question as a coconut rushes downward toward my skull. Since the outcome only happens in the very limited context of being under a coconut tree, I can avoid the hazard altogether… simply by sitting elsewhere. Similarly, we can avoid risks that are inherently present in certain situations. We need not walk defiantly through the territory of a violent gang, or wear our Rolex on a trip to Rio or stay in a violent relationship. Context can be a useful predictor of hazard all by itself.

 

Context can also be a reliable guarantor of safety. Teaching a criminal-justice class at George Washington University, I asked five of the students to think up the most frightening, convincing death threats they could and then deliver them to me. I would assess and then accurately determine the seriousness of each one.

The first student I called on stood up and said matter-of-factly: “It’s ironic that you would have this exercise tonight, and I can’t believe you chose me to go first, because I actually have been planning to kill you. When I saw on the schedule that you were teaching tonight, I borrowed, well, took my brother’s pistol. I have it here in my briefcase.”

He held up the case and tilted it from side to side so we could hear that it did indeed contain something heavy. “I first planned to shoot you as you walked to your car, but I have decided to do it here in the classroom. Given the topic of the class and the fact that you are an expert on threats, this shooting will intrigue people and bring me attention for a long while.”

He looked around at the other students, some of whom were a bit uncomfortable. “If anybody wants to avoid seeing this, you should leave right now.” As he reached slowly into his briefcase, I called out, “Next threat,” and he sat down. I had told the class I’d be able to predict the seriousness and outcome of each threat with perfect reliability, and I did. That’s because it made no difference what they said or how they said it. Since I had asked the students to threaten me, context—not content—dictated the obvious: None of the threats would be acted upon.

 

Still, because most people have had little experience with death threats, and because they mistakenly believe that the death threat is inherently different from all other threats, the words usually cause undue fear. In fact, the death threat is among the threats least likely to be carried out.

The first step toward deciding which words actually portend danger is understanding what threats are and what they are not. A threat is a statement of an intention to do some harm, period. It offers no conditions, no alternatives, no ways out. It does not contain the words if, or else, until, unless. Sentences that do contain those words are not threats; they are intimidations, and there is an important distinction.

 

Intimidations are statements of conditions to be met in order to avert a harm. For example, “I will burn this building down if I don’t get the promotion” is an intimidation, not a threat, because a condition is offered to avert the harm. With intimidations, the motive is always right in the statement and the outcome the speaker desires is clear. “Unless you apologize, I’ll kill you” (the speaker wants an apology). “If you fire me, you’ll be sorry” (the speaker wants to keep his job).

These statements differ importantly from threats because they are brought into play as high-stakes manipulations. The speaker wants his conditions met—he does not want to inflict the harm. With threats, conversely, no conditions are offered, usually because the speaker sees few alternatives. Thus, threats carry more likelihood of violence than intimidations. Another tip: Threats that are end-game moves—those introduced late in a controversy—are more serious than those used early. That’s because those used early likely represent an immediate emotional response as opposed to a decision to use violence.

 

As an instrument of communication, the threat is most similar to the promise (though promises are kept far more often). With a promise, if we judge that the speaker is sincere, we next assess the likelihood that he will retain his will over time. One may promise something today but feel different tomorrow. Because threats are often spoken from emotion, and because emotions are ephemeral, threateners often lose their will over time. Threats and promises alike are easy to speak, harder to honor.

Both promises and threats are made to convince us of an intention, but threats actually convince us of an emotion: frustration. Threats betray the speaker by proving that he has failed to influence events in any other way. Most often they represent desperation, not intention. Neither threats nor promises are guarantees, contracts, or even commitments; they are just words. (Guarantees offer to set things right if the promise isn’t kept. With contracts there is some cost for breaches of the promise. People making commitments have a personal cost if they fail to keep them, but those who threaten have found the cheapest form of promise, and also the one that others actually hope they’ll break.)

Though you wouldn’t know it by the reaction they frequently earn, threats are rarely spoken from a position of power. Whatever power they have is derived from the fear instilled in the victim, for fear is the currency of the threatener. He gains advantage through your uncertainty, but once the words are spoken, he must retreat or advance and, like all people, he hopes to retain dignity through either course.

How one responds to a threat determines whether it will be a valuable instrument or mere words. Thus, it is the listener and not the speaker who decides how powerful a threat will be. If the listener turns pale, starts shaking, and begs for forgiveness, he has turned the threat or intimidation into gold. Conversely, if he seems unaffected, it is tin.

 

Even in cases in which threats are determined to be serious (and thus call for interventions or extensive precautions), we advise clients never to show the threatener a high appraisal of his words, never to show fear.

These days, bomb threats are a tactic popular with angry people. It’s amazing how much fear can be caused by a single phone call; it might compel an organization to evacuate a building, close for the day, or enact restrictive security procedures. But to believe the caller who says, “I’ve planted a bomb, and it’s going off in three hours,” you have to believe that the person went to the extraordinary trouble and risk of obtaining the bomb components, then found a location where he could be sure nobody would ever see what he was doing, then assembled the bomb, then took the chance of losing his liberty and life while placing the device, and then undid it all by making the warning call.

 

What might be his motives for calling and telling you what he’d done? Does he make the call as a warning to help save lives? Wouldn’t it be easier to save lives by planting a bomb in a place where there wouldn’t be any people, or just not planting it at all?

Let’s go one level deeper: Imagine a person built and planted a bomb but then changed his mind and called in a threat to be sure nobody was hurt. Wouldn’t this unlikely on-again-off-again sociopath give you highly specific information, such as exactly where it was planted?

 

Another possible motive for a real bomber to call in a threat is to ensure that he gets credit for the explosion, because after it happens, several people or groups might say they did it. Only the person who called before the explosion is guaranteed the credit. Think about this though: If a bomber is so egomaniacal that he wants to ensure he gets the attention for his mayhem, is he really going to self-sabotage by giving police time to find and defuse his pride and joy?

We give so much credence to the words “I’ve planted a bomb” that I often wonder if we’d react as gullibly to other unbelievable claims. If some anonymous caller said, “Listen, I’ve buried a million dollars cash in the planter in front of the building,” would everybody from the CEO to the receptionist rush out and start digging through the dirt?

 

What about when the caller contradicts himself? First he says he planted a bomb in the lobby, then he calls ten minutes later and says he didn’t plant a bomb in the lobby after all. Do we stop the search and just let everybody go back to work? What about when the same bomb threat we evacuated the building for on Monday comes again on Tuesday and again on Wednesday? At what point do we stop treating anonymous threateners as if they were the most credible people we’d ever heard from when in fact nearly 100 percent of these calls are bogus? The answer is, at the point where we have greater confidence in our predictions.

We get that confidence by understanding as much as possible about threats. For example, if the bomb threatener is angry and hostile, the call is probably designed to do what most threats are designed to do: cause fear and anxiety. A caller who wants to discharge anger over the telephone by using violent imagery (“You’ll all be blown to bits”), or who is agitated and aggressive, is not behaving like a real bomber. Most real bombers are patient, I’ll-get-you-in-time type people who can mortgage their emotions for another day. They express anger by blowing things up, not by making hostile calls. Ironically, bombers do not have explosive personalities.

(Because bomb threats raise so many liability questions for employers, i.e., Should we evacuate? Should we tell employees about threats so they can make their own decisions? How should threats be assessed? Who should be notified? our office assists organizations in establishing bomb threat response policies. Most of the big questions can be answered ahead of time so one isn’t searching for a light-switch in the dark. Without this approach, critical decisions are made in the stress of some highly charged moment. As with all threats, context is the key issue. A threat made at an Olympic event, which is politically charged and the focus of world media attention, will be assessed differently than the same words aimed at a shopping center.)

▪ ▪ ▪

Some threateners are so unorganized that they modify their initial threats or spit out several alarming concepts in a row. Some say, “You’ll all be blown up within the hour,” then say, “You ought to be killed,” then say, “Your day will come, I promise.” We call these amendments value reduction statements, and callers who use them reveal themselves to be more interested in venting anger than warning of danger.

The things people say when threatening others are intentionally shocking and alarming. Victims often describe a threat they received as “horrible” or “vicious” because it paints a gruesome picture. “I’ll cut you up into little pieces” is a popular one. So is “I’ll blow your brains out.” Again and again, however, content is far less significant than context, and the choice of alarming words usually speaks more of someone’s desire to frighten than of his intention to harm. “I’ll blow your head off” or “I’ll gun you down like a dog” may, depending upon context, portend less danger than does the simple statement, “I can’t take this any more.”

Still, alarming words cause people to react by going into a defensive posture, psychologically speaking. Though shocking or bizarre things don’t usually put us at any actual risk, uncertainty about risk causes us alarm, and this causes a problem: When we are stunned or distracted we raise the very drawbridge—perception—that we must cross in order to make successful predictions.

 

In the last thirty years, I’ve read, heard, and seen the world’s most creative, gruesome, distasteful, and well-performed threats. I’ve learned that it’s important to react calmly, because when in alarm we stop evaluating information mindfully and start doing it physically.

For example, a death threat communicated in a letter or phone call cannot possibly pose any immediate hazard, but the recipient might nonetheless start getting physically ready for danger, with increased blood flow to the arms and legs (for fighting or running), release of the chemical cortisol (which helps blood coagulate more quickly in case of injury), lactic acid heating up in the muscles (to prepare them for effort), focused vision, and increased breathing and heartbeat to support all these systems. These responses are valuable when facing present danger (such as when Kelly stood up and walked out of her apartment), but for evaluating future hazard, staying calm produces better results. A way to do this is to consciously ask and answer the question “Am I in immediate danger?” Your body wants you to get this question out of the way, and once you do, you’ll be free to keep perceiving what’s going on.

 

The great enemy of perception, and thus of accurate predictions, is judgment. People often learn just enough about something to judge it as belonging in this or that category. They observe bizarre conduct and say, “This guy is just crazy.” Judgments are the automatic pigeon-holing of a person or situation simply because some characteristic is familiar to the observer (so whatever that characteristic meant before it must mean again now). Familiarity is comfortable, but such judgments drop the curtain, effectively preventing the observer from seeing the rest of the play.

Another time people stop perceiving new information is when they prematurely judge someone as guilty or not guilty. Recall the story of the woman who was certain the threats she was getting were from the man she had sued. In telling me about it, she provided details that were not necessary to the story (details I call satellites). I could hear them for what they were—valuable information—but she couldn’t hear them because she had already settled on one particular suspect, thus shutting down perception.

 

The opposite can also happen, as in cases in which people exclude one particular suspect. Find the satellite in Sally’s story:

“Someone is terrorizing me, and I’ve got to find out who it is. A few weeks ago, a car drove up the hill to my house, and the driver just stared at the front door. I flipped the porch lights on and off, and he left. It happened again the next day. Then the calls started. A man’s voice said, ‘You should move; it’s not safe there for a woman alone. You don’t belong there.’ I’m so lucky I met Richard Barnes a few days later—he’s the guy I’m selling the house to. And you know what? My house really is too remote for a woman alone.”

What is the satellite, the unneeded detail? The name of the man she is selling to.

“Tell me about Richard Barnes.”

“Oh, he’s got nothing to do with this. He’s just the guy who is buying the house, and what a godsend he is. One day as I was getting my mail, he was jogging by, and we started talking. He mentioned how much he loved the bay windows at my house, and one thing led to another. He made an offer the next afternoon.”

“What about the anonymous calls scared you?”

“I was worried whoever it was might want to hurt me, of course.”

“But the caller said you should move. Your moving wouldn’t serve someone who intended to hurt you. Who would be served by your moving?”

“Nobody. [A pause.] Someone who wanted to buy my house?”

You know where this is going. Further discussion revealed that Richard Barnes lived in a suburb more than an hour away, so why was he jogging in Sally’s neighborhood? He knew details about her house (the bay windows) that a person could gain only by driving up the long driveway. Sally had made a judgment that excluded him as a suspect and accordingly she left him out of her thinking.

 

Since the motive for nearly all anonymous threats is to influence conduct, I suggest that clients ask who would be served if they took the actions that they’d take if they believed the threats would be carried out. This often leads to the identity of the threatener.

▪ ▪ ▪

One popular form of intimidation that is rarely done anonymously is extortion. In common extortion cases, a person threatens to disclose information he predicts will be damaging and he offers to keep the secret if compensated. Since victims of threats—and not threateners—decide how valuable a threat will be, the way you react will set the price tag.

 

The proverbial extortion threat is actually an intimidation, because it contains the words if, or else, unless, or until: “If you don’t give me ten thousand dollars, I’ll tell your wife you are having an affair.” Best response: “Hold on a moment, let me get my wife on the line and you can tell her right now.” With that reaction, the threat is turned from gold to tin. If you can convince an extortionist that the harm he threatens does not worry you, you have at a minimum improved your negotiating position. In many cases, you may actually neutralize the whole matter.

Conversely, reacting with pleading and compliance increases the extortionist’s appraisal of his threat. A threatened harm can be so intolerable to the victim that paying for silence seems worthwhile. Often this paves the way to hear that threat another day, for the person who successfully extorts money once may come back to the reluctant bank.

 

Some people, of course, choose to pay extortionists, though I rarely recommend it. Aside from what I’d call legal extortion (letters from lawyers demanding payments for a client’s unjustified claims), few extortionists can be relied upon to stick to the terms of agreements they might make. In other words, you are negotiating an agreement with someone who cannot be relied upon to honor it.

Public figures are probably the most frequent targets for extortion and there are some lessons to learn from their experience. In a typical case, someone has potentially damaging information and now demands to be rewarded for keeping the confidence. I recall a young film star whose rise to fame brought a call from a sleazy ex-boyfriend she hadn’t heard from in years. Unless my client gave him $50,000, he threatened, he would reveal that she had had an abortion. The thought of this becoming known caused her great anxiety, and thus enhanced the value of the threat. By the time she met with me, she hadn’t slept a full night in a week. My counsel for managing such cases is always to begin with an organized appraisal of the threat. I asked my client to make a list of the people she feared would react adversely if the information were made public.

 

“That’s easy,” she said. “My parents. I don’t want them to know.” I asked that she consider calling her parents and telling them the information in her way, rather than living with the dread that they would learn it his way (or a tabloid’s way). I said she was the only person in the world who could determine the value of this threat.

Disclosing the harmful information oneself is so radical an idea that most victims of extortion never even consider it, but within ten minutes, my client made her difficult decision, called her parents, and killed the threat. She got off the phone visibly lighter and more powerful. “I came here willing to do anything to stop him from revealing that secret. Now, I am not willing to do anything at all, because I don’t care what he says.” (My client paid nothing, and the man never revealed the information anyway. I have a few cases a year just like this one.)

Extortion is a crime of opportunity, usually committed by amateurs who tend to first try the most roundabout approach: “You know, I saw you on the Emmy’s the other night, and you’re doing so well and everything, making so much money, and I’ve had such a rough year financially, and I was thinking about how beautiful you looked in those pictures we took that time in Mexico…” Because extortion is a bit awkward for the neophyte, he wants his victim to jump in and make it easy by saying, “I’d be glad to help you out money-wise, but I wonder, could I get those photos back? I’d hate to see them become public.”

Victims often try to appease the extortionist, but these efforts just allow him to retain the undeserved mantle of a decent person. I suggest that clients compel the extortionist to commit to his sleaziness, which puts him on the defensive. Don’t let him simply flirt with his lowness—make him marry it by saying those ugly words. I ask victims to repeat “I don’t understand what you’re getting at” until the extortionist states it clearly. Many extortionists can’t do it and they either stumble around the issue or abandon their bad idea altogether. Making him explicitly state the extortion also helps clarify whether he is motivated by greed or malice, and this provides a road map to his desired outcome.

 

Though sometimes very difficult, it is important to be polite to the extortionist, because he may be looking for justification to do the hurtful thing he threatens. With the amateur, sinking so low is difficult, and believe it or not, it’s a very vulnerable time for him. Don’t misread this as sympathy on my part—it’s just wise not to kick this guy around emotionally because if he gets angry that empowers him.

Victims of extortion committed by someone they know are often reluctant to believe he’ll actually go through with the threatened act. You can make your own predictions as to what he’ll do, but to save time for any reader who ever faces the situation, extortionists who are motivated by malice are more likely to carry out the act than those motivated just by greed. Anyway, those motivated by malice are usually so hard to negotiate with that I usually suggest my clients not even try. Another tip: Those who say the shabby words explicitly right from the start are more likely to carry out the threatened act than those who stumble around.

 

When any type of threat includes indirect or veiled references to things they might do, such as “You’ll be sorry,” or “Don’t mess with me,” it is best to ask directly, “What do you mean by that?” Ask exactly what the person is threatening to do. His elaboration will almost always be weaker than his implied threat. If, on the other hand, his explanation of the comment is actually an explicit threat, better to learn it now than to be uncertain later.

▪ ▪ ▪

One of the best examples of how powerful an influence context can be comes when evaluating threats to public figures. Assumptions that might be accurate in other situations are entirely inaccurate in this one. For example, in interpersonal situations (neighbor, friend, spouse) a threat tends to actually increase the likelihood of violence by eroding the quality of communication and increasing frustration, but the very same threat conveyed to a public figure does not portend violence at all.

 

Still, it is a tenacious myth that those who threaten public figures are the ones most likely to harm them. In fact, those who make direct threats to public figures are far less likely to harm them than those who communicate in other inappropriate ways (lovesickness, exaggerated adoration, themes of rejection, the belief that a relationship is “meant to be,” plans to travel or meet, the belief that the media figure owes them something, etc.). Direct threats are not a reliable pre-incident indicator for assassination in America, as demonstrated by the fact that not one successful public-figure attacker in the history of the media age directly threatened his victim first.

While threats communicated directly to famous victims do not predict violence, those spoken to uninvolved second parties are more serious. The person who informs police that a disturbed cousin said he would shoot the governor is providing very valuable information. That’s because threats spoken to people other than the victim are not as likely to be motivated by a desire to scare the victim. Though they too are rarely acted upon, threats delivered to second parties should always be reported to law enforcement.

 

The myth that those who will harm a famous person will directly threaten their victims first has led many to wrongly conclude that inappropriate communications that don’t contain threats are not significant. The opposite is actually true. Public figures who ignore inappropriate letters simply because they don’t contain threats, will be missing the very communications most relevant to safety.

This idea that the presence of a threat lowers risk and the absence of a threat elevates risk is hard for people to grasp, perhaps because it feels counter-intuitive, but it’s true, and it’s not the only fact about threats to public figures that surprises people.

For example, though anonymous death threats cause high concern, they actually portend less danger than accredited threats. People who send threats anonymously are far less likely to pursue an encounter than those who sign their names. There are some compelling reasons why this is so. The threatener who provides his true name is not trying to avoid attention, and is probably seeking it. Thus, he is most similar to assassins, most of whom stand at the scene of their crimes and say, “I did this.”

Still, police have historically been intrigued by anonymous death threats and apathetic about accredited ones. Since police are usually faced with the challenge of apprehending suspects who seek to avoid detection, when they encounter one who self-identifies, a common response is “This guy would never do anything—he signed his name right here.” The thinking is that if the sender were to carry out the threatened act, apprehension would be easy. This approach fails to recognize that actual public figure attackers have rarely sought to avoid apprehension. The police misunderstanding about anonymous threats stems from how different the assassin is from almost all other criminals. Who else would actually design his offense to ensure that he gets caught? Who else would hope his act would be videotaped?

 

To the modern media criminal, most notably the assassin, that is the description of the perfect crime, and a few people will dedicate their lives to committing it. You aren’t likely to ever face an assassin, of course, but you are likely to encounter people just as dedicated, people who refuse to let go.






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