Poison Pens

The other day I was watching an old episode of CSI… the one where someone stole Abby’s Chocolicious cupcake. She cordons off the fridge area with police tape, and dusts for finger-prints, in order to find the culprit….

Meanwhile, in the ‘real’ world, a body is found – and anonymous calls tip Gibbs and his team off as to the whereabouts of the murder weapon. The same voice later taunts them about how Gibbs could be covering for an old friend – the Senator, who of course was the married lover of the married woman.

What is important for the purposes of this blog, however, is neither the theft of the cupcake, nor the murder that was committed. It’s the fact that an automated voice generator was used in order to render the message anonymous. It would seem that technology has facilitated the noxious penchant of some people to intrude upon the lives of others.

Unfortunately, the words “I am writing this because I wish you well” are worthless – anyone who wishes me well is more than welcome to tell me what he has to tell me in person. Poison pen letters are written by people who do not have the guts to show their true colours. This could be because they are lying – or because they are jealous of the person to whom they send the missive – or because their lives are empty and they need to fill it with something and we are the (un)lucky ones.

The person who makes dozens of missed calls on a cellular phone or a landline, or the person who disguises his handwriting in order to send a letter by snail mail, as well as the person who takes out an e-mail address in an account different from his standard account… there are ways and means of catching them out, should the recipient be so inclined. Unfortunately, however, sometimes the law appears to be on the side of the culprit, rather than the victim.

The Data Protection Act for instance, makes it impossible for anyone receiving missed calls or even ones where there is spoken abuse, to know who is making them, unless he is ready to file a report with the police. The rest is easy – but it gives the caller a sense of pride in having dragged his victim through all that hassle. Letters are dusted for fingerprints and graphology tests are run – but, again, the victim must point a finger towards suspects, and samples of their writing acquired.

There was a time when the denouement of detective stories hinged upon the fact that each typewriter had something that could differentiate it from the next one; the t stuck, the k’s lower serif was misshapen, as could be seen under high magnification… and so forth. If push comes to shove, the ISP number of each computer may be traced from each e-mail that is sent, once the recipient of the e-mails decides to prosecute.

The process is long – but it can be done. Many people who have received anonymous calls or letters eventually find out that they originated from people whom they know well, or others whom they have met through mutual friends or business dealings. This is evident by the fact that most letters and phone calls include personal information that is not usually known by third parties, even if these are public figures. These references include names of children or other relatives (“your sister Francine is trying to steal your husband”); details of illnesses (“I hope your cancer comes back and kills you this time…”) or references to a person’s job (“Call yourself a teacher? You could not teach a class of mannequins!”).

What makes it all so galling is that the recipient has usually not done anything to irritate the sender – other than be what he is. Friends of mine have received malicious letters, cruel letters, and letters that were full of lies. The same goes for telephone calls. In one of them, for instance, the caller asked my friend to check upon the whereabouts of her husband – who happened to be weeding in the back garden. Incidentally, along with ‘anonymous letters’ I would also include the chain mail we receive that is ostensibly meant to send prayers far and wide. Some think this is a means to cull e-mail addresses.

But I think that these mails prey on the insecurities of people who think that ‘harm’ will befall them if they fail to pass on a certain devotion, or a verse from a Holy Book, to a certain number of people by a certain tome-limit. If prayer is a good thing, they reason, how could it be bad to pass it on? If a joke makes you smile, what harm could it do to forward it to others despite the fact that it is unsigned?

If a biased article from a newspaper puts a minority group in a bad light, why don’t you pass it on to others, despite the fact that it originates from unspecified places? And so the trap is sprung once more. Poison pen letters, chain mail, and other types of anonymous communication from faceless, spineless people must either be ignored, or treated as a serious invasion of privacy.

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