During my freshman year of high school, I recall spending the better part of an algebra class sitting Indian-style in a parking lot adjacent to the school. We were waiting patiently for it to explode.
I probably had my fingers crossed that it would. Someone had called in a bomb threat and administrators had done their due diligence to make sure it wasn't what it turned out to be: a girl I vaguely knew from the school bus having a laugh. As I recall, she was expelled from school. But she was a senior who probably just went ahead and got her GED.
No criminal charges were filed despite the inconvenience of a disrupted school day. But that was a different time. It was 1997, two years before the Columbine massacre (after which we were required to start wearing ID tags around campus — so they could more easily identify the bodies, I joked), four before 9/11, and 15 before gunman Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 small children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Terrible jokes were punished as such; we weren't as eager to make examples after those kinds of incidents. We weren't conditioned yet to look at every acne-mottled outcast as potentially psychotic.
Twenty-year-old Caleb Clemmons recently played a "joke" on a different America, one with a diminished sense of humor.
Back in February, Clemmons, then a psychology student at Georgia Southern in Statesboro, posted the following message to his Tumblr: "Hello. my name is irenigg and i plan on shooting up georgia southern. pass this around to see the affect it has. to see if i get arrested."
Clemmons later explained that he intended for the post to be "an experimental literary piece and an art project" — and it yielded pretty immediate results. Mere hours after Clemmons' post went online, he landed in jail for making a terrorist threat. His bond was set at $20,000 even though police investigators quickly discovered that he didn't own any weapons or devise actual plans to "shoot up" the school.
Nearly one month later, 19-year-old San Antonio resident Justin Carter found himself in a similar situation when he made a sarcastic comment on Facebook. During an argument about a game called League of Legends, someone accused the teen of being crazy and he facetiously responded: "I'm f***ed in the head alright. I think I'ma [sic] shoot up a kindergarten and watch the blood of the innocent rain down and eat the beating heart of one of them." Some woman who saw the post alerted the police. Carter was also arrested for making a terrorist threat. Both men languished behind bars for months and faced years in prison.
Clemmons' threat didn't result in "terror" per se — Georgia Southern's student body was never even informed a "threat" had been issued — but Georgia law is roomy. A threat doesn't have to actually result in terror or inconvenience to be considered terroristic, it merely has to be made in "reckless disregard of the risk of causing such terror or inconvenience." According to state law, Clemmons asked for it, just like a dumb kid in a horror movie saying "bloody Mary" three times into a mirror.
After spending six months in jail, Clemmons pleaded guilty on August 20 to making a terrorist threat and was sentenced by a Bulloch County Superior Court Judge to five years probation, plus time served. If his sentencing date seems familiar, it's because that very same afternoon, a couple hundred miles northwest of Statesboro, a man armed with a rifle and around 500 rounds of ammunition entered Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in unincorporated DeKalb County, made demands, and fired shots at police. We all know how that story turned out, thanks to a graceful, even-tempered woman named Antoinette Tuff. But imagine if the DeKalb incident had taken place in the days leading up to Clemmons' sentencing hearing. Would he have gotten off with probation and time served? Or would he have suffered for the terror imposed by another? "See," the judge might've said, "that's why we take this shit seriously."
A five-year probation sentence isn't exactly tantamount to the jail time he could've gotten, but Clemmons' probation terms are nothing to sneeze at. He's prohibited from entering four counties, including the one where Georgia Southern is located, so there goes college, assuming he would have been allowed to return at all. Clemmons also received a five-year social media ban. I laughed aloud when I first read that stipulation since the court had essentially "grounded" him from posting online status updates or messages. But the more I thought about it, the more I understood the social and professional implications for a young person fresh out of jail and attempting to start over as a felon.
I'm also not sure what that particular stipulation accomplishes. For a five-year period, we can all rest assured that Caleb Clemmons won't write jokes or "experimental literary pieces" on his Tumblr that say he's going to attack a school when he is not, in fact, going to attack a school.
I feel safer, don't you?
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