National Review

I am Justin Carter: We’re not children anymore, just criminals who have yet to be caught

I am Justin Carter: We’re not children anymore, just criminals who have yet to be caught

America loves to lock people up. It's what we do. A young man named Justin Carter is in jail right now because he “joked” about a school shooting on Facebook while arguing about League of Legends.

The NPR story claims that the young man may have said “JK” after his comments, but that bit is disputed by the police. This is the sort of thing that's news: A young man's freedom may hinge on some online slang. Kids aren't allowed to be kids anymore, they go straight from normal child to criminal. Judges are being arrested for selling kids to private prisons.

We're all criminals that weren't caught

“I'm not allowed to go there anymore,” a girlfriend once told me in college, when I brought up a particularly popular online forum. She had been banned, and I asked why. “Racial stuff, mostly,” she said with a shrug. She was clearly embarrassed, but she had been young, and drunk on anonymity, and wanted to see how far she could take things.

I was 22 at the time, and she was 19. We felt very adult about things, but we were kids. I'm glad this happened before the days of websites publishing the personal information of children who post negative things online in order to “punish” them.

I can't even remember all the terrible things I've said online as a kid, or the joy I found in building potato guns, shooting BBs in the woods, or making my own explosives in the fields behind my friends' homes. Now I would be a terrorist making bombs, a school shooter-to-be practicing my craft, or a mastermind creating weapons that could slip through a metal detector.

At the time it just felt like we were having fun.

I remember a buddy of mine had brought a beer to school, as an act of youthful rebellion, and he gave it to me to hide. Like an idiot I did so, and nothing bad happened. If it had been found they would have likely called my parents, and I may have been suspended. These days it's likely that I would have faced automatic expulsion, and perhaps arrest.

We're putting police in schools, and if you talk back these days you get the cuffs. You don't go to the principal's office, you go to jail. It's what we do in America. We love our jails, and our schools can be efficient funnels to keep them filled. It's hard to count all the times I would have been arrested during my days in primary and high school if I had gotten caught for half the shit I pulled.

I was not a particularly troublesome kid, either. My hijinx were relatively minor compared to some of the other kids I knew. Joking about violence in a video game doesn't even begin to cover it. 

We send in SWAT teams to break up poker games these days, because gambling is bad. Sometimes people get killed. A few months ago I was the target of systematic harassment on Twitter, e-mail, and other social media, and someone from a large gaming company who had also been the target of a similar campaign told me to call the local police and explain who I was, and what was going on.

“Sometimes these people like to call 911 and say you're house is the scene of a crime.” I was told. “The police then send the SWAT team to your house.” I had thought this was hyperbole, until I found out that yes, “SWATTING” people is a well known “prank.” I now call the police and let them know what's up whenever the online stuff gets particularly nasty.

These are realities that are hard to wrap your head around, and sometimes I wonder if I need to teach my kids what to do if the police raid the house, or a game they're playing.

In my youth the police were called to investigate a LAN party I was involved with in an old building; the cops just saw a bunch of expensive equipment being carried into a bad part of town. What would have happened today in the land of zero tolerance, SWAT raids, and the war on terror? I'm glad we didn't have to find out.

Still, I keep thinking about the kid in jail for mouthing off about a game of League of Legends. And he is a kid, no matter what his legal age may be. I don't need the “JK” or “LOL” at the end of his sarcastic remark to realize he doesn't need to be jailed for months with a half-million dollar bail.

“Without getting into the really nasty details, he's had concussions, black eyes, moved four times from base for his own protection,” his father told NPR. “He's been put in solitary confinement, nude, for days on end because he's depressed. All of this is extremely traumatic to this kid. This is a horrible experience.”

If he wasn't antisocial and angry before being arrested, he will be now. But we couldn't take the risk that he was serious, and that something may have happened if he wasn't imprisoned. This is America. It's what we do. The only thing that scares me about this situation is that I am Justin Carter, and I'm afraid my children may be as well.

If you'd like to donate to Justin Carter's bail fund, you can do so here.