That Swatting Incident

I’ve been largely ignoring the news here at the end of the year, so I don’t have much to say about whatever new controversy is going on right now. Or the other new one. I mean, let’s be honest, there has to be a new one literally every single day to keep driving traffic, right?

But I did see one horrifying gaming-related news story that struck a nerve:

Call of Duty gaming community points to ‘swatting’ in deadly Wichita police shooting

Family says son killed by police in ‘swatting’ was unarmed, didn’t play video games

Police release ‘swatting’ call, video of man being shot to death as a result of hoax

LAPD arrests man on suspicion of making deadly swatting call to Wichita police

I tweeted about the incident saying something to the effect that I hoped the perpetrator(s) of the hoax were caught and given the same restraint that had been given to the innocent person who died. Meaning, indirectly, that I hoped someone “accidentally” shot those gamer(s) to rid the world of their DNA and save taxpayer dollars on a trial. It’s a terribly vindictive thing to say and completely circumvents the whole “innocent until proven guilty” ideal of America that I should hold up as a shining beacon of our values, but hey, it made me mad.

Because it (yet again) paints the gaming community in a horrible light. Nobody ever talks about the ways in which gaming communities legitimately help people, our community is only seen by the outside world in stories about “gaming addiction” and “swatting.” Let me just state categorically that this kid and swatting does not in any way represent the gaming world that I know and support. His world is basically a bunch of listless street punks with the means and technology to frequent an online game instead of an inner city back alley.

It also upsets me because I don’t fully understand how police can simply take a 911 caller’s word that a deadly hostage situation is underway, no questions asked. I’m so cynical I guess that I automatically assume any communication from an anonymous, unverifiable source should by default be treated as a deception, be it over telephone, fax, email, Twitter, Facebook, or whatever. In today’s world of technology you have literally no idea who is on the other end of a communication channel unless you a) actually know the other person and recognize their face/voice/handwriting, or b) physically see and touch an authentic identification, preferably more than one. Literally anyone from around the entire world can place a phone call to any other person anywhere in the entire world and make it appear that it comes from literally anyone they want in the entire world. That is not an exaggeration for effect. That is a literal fact. The same has been true of email since its inception. Most Internet communication channels have this problem. For example, if you get a friend request on Facebook, unless you can physically ask the person if it was really them, you have no way of knowing with absolute certainty it’s really them. Even if you do trust that the initial friending is legit, that friend’s account could be compromised at any time without either party knowing it. I mean, how often have you heard of people just giving their Facebook password away to someone else? I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard it a lot. (One or more times is considered “a lot.”)

I got into a bit of a Twitter debate about where to place the blame for this poor guy’s death. To me, it was very obvious that 100% of the blame lay on the kid who made the 911 call. The officer who fired the shot should still be investigated and I completely support that, but if there are any criminal charges filed I very much hope they go against the kid and not that officer. Initial reports (see above) seem to indicate the officer acted appropriately. This was the equivalent of two kids fighting over a game of dice in a back alley, one of them pulling a gun, and accidentally shooting an innocent bystander who just happens to walk by at the time. In that case, the criminal is clearly the kid who pulled the gun and shot the bystander. The circumstances are more vague in this case, but the criminal is still clearly the kid who called 911, because he was effectively committing a crime using the police as his weapon, and he should be prosecuted for (at least) manslaughter here. It may well have been “accidental” but it’s still a crime.

Some people on Twitter seem to think that rampant unchecked police brutality is responsible for this guy’s death, many more than just the one person I was talking with on Twitter. Especially from overseas, there is a perception, reinforced by popular media, that the U.S. is a lawless warzone where anyone can be gunned down on the street at any time, and us poor citizens cower in fear for our lives every day. If that’s the only thing you know about the U.S., I can understand the sentiment of outrage against the police here.

Maybe there are people who cower in fear every day of their lives, and there are certainly places and circumstances where that is justified, but for myself, I’ve never been anywhere near a violent crime in my entire life, and have never felt fearful for my personal safety because of gun violence or police violence.

At first I had questions about how an officer could shoot an unarmed person, but now that more details have been released about the incident, it makes a lot more sense to me. I don’t condone what that officer did, and I hope he gets a lot of support/training/debriefing/whatever about this and learns from it, but based on the fake information from the 911 call, and the behavior of the man outside his house, it is not surprising that he was shot.

I know innately to treat police with a healthy respect, because they have loaded weapons and the legal authority to use them. This is something I’ve known for as long as I can remember. The idea of just walking outside to see what is going on with a lot of flashing lights and sirens near my house strikes me as roughly equivalent to dropping a toaster in your bath to see what will happen. If it had been me, especially now that I’m aware of this incident of swatting, I’d have gotten down on the floor and put my hands over my head, shouting very loudly that I was unarmed and cooperating, until everybody put their guns away. (I’d probably try to record everything on my phone too if I could safely do so–video/audio evidence is much more damning than verbal witness testimony in today’s world.) At the very least I sure wouldn’t just go wandering around outside where anyone, friend or foe, could take a shot at me.

So what can we learn from this terrible incident? (I will not call it a “tragedy” because tragedies are unavoidable.)

  1. For one, it probably is a good idea to make a plan for what to do if you see a large police force show up outside your house for no apparent reason. Start by being afraid, not curious.
  2. If you’re involved with the criminal underworld of online gaming and betting, you might want to take some steps to keep your real-world identity private. Then, after that, you should stop being involved with that underworld and go do something productive with your life. Who thinks betting $2 on Call of Duty is a winning strategy for succeeding in life?
  3. Teach your kids and anyone you can find that online multiplayer games are *not* safe spaces. *I* know this because of twenty years of experience. In the early days, they *were* relatively safe spaces. The worst you could expect was someone trying to get you to press ALT-F4 in a game. But those crazy naive days ended when the 1990s ended. I know how exhilarating it can be to feel like you’ve found a “home” in an online world, and there may indeed be like-minded people in those spaces, but these days, there are just as likely to be more predators in those spaces as friends. Why wouldn’t there be? In most cases, there is nothing stopping predatory behavior except community standards. There are very few laws that govern these online spaces.

And this is my last point, which is another thing that frustrates me about this swatting incident: I don’t know about other countries, but U.S. laws need to move faster to catch up with technology. The amount of criminal or even just shady activity that can be done using technology today is staggering, and our laws are still focused on dealing with those two street punks fighting over a dice game in a back alley.

It is not an exaggeration now to say that our entire system of democracy is at risk because of how much unchecked lawless behavior can be conducted on the Internet. I am not one of those who believes Trump “colluded” with Russia (pending further information, of course–and yes I completely trust Mueller’s investigation and whatever his findings might be), but there can be no doubt that the inherent anonymity of the Internet, combined with most people’s generally trusting nature and the belief that we still live in a pre-Internet world where we only need to worry about our immediate physical neighbors, has created a social engineering platform of a massive scale that has never before been seen in history. (Trump himself takes advantage of it daily!)

P.S. Is there any way this kid can atone for what he’s done here? He can start by owning up to what he did, plead guilty, and serve whatever jail time is required. That is the absolute minimum bar to get over before he can begin to rebuild his credibility as a human being. Then he will need to pay for the expenses incurred by the locality for calling out a SWAT team, pay for any funeral expenses for the guy who died, and pay for any legal fees incurred by the police officer who fired the shot (if any). Then he will need to spend a big chunk of the rest of his life using his experience as a platform to educate others in the gaming world and fight to prevent this situation from ever happening again. Only after I see all of those things would I even consider treating him with any respect.

P.P.S. I would also like to see some GoFundMe efforts from the Call of Duty gambling community to help defray some of the above costs incurred, too. Because they are not completely blameless here, either.