Threatening the President: A Signal/Noise Problem

Even if you can’t remember why the pointy end of a pencil is important, you too can create national news.

This bit of noise reminded me of an incident when I was in high school where some similar type person bragged in a local bar about assassinating then President Nixon*. Was arrested and sentenced to several years in prison.

At the time I puzzled briefly over the waste of time and effort in such a prosecution and then promptly forgot it.

Until this incident with the overly “clever” Trump supporter.

To get us off on the same foot:

18 U.S. Code § 871 – Threats against President and successors to the Presidency

(a) Whoever knowingly and willfully deposits for conveyance in the mail or for a delivery from any post office or by any letter carrier any letter, paper, writing, print, missive, or document containing any threat to take the life of, to kidnap, or to inflict bodily harm upon the President of the United States, the President-elect, the Vice President or other officer next in the order of succession to the office of President of the United States, or the Vice President-elect, or knowingly and willfully otherwise makes any such threat against the President, President-elect, Vice President or other officer next in the order of succession to the office of President, or Vice President-elect, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.

(b) The terms “President-elect” and “Vice President-elect” as used in this section shall mean such persons as are the apparent successful candidates for the offices of President and Vice President, respectively, as ascertained from the results of the general elections held to determine the electors of President and Vice President in accordance with title 3, United States Code, sections 1 and 2. The phrase “other officer next in the order of succession to the office of President” as used in this section shall mean the person next in the order of succession to act as President in accordance with title 3, United States Code, sections 19 and 20.

Commonplace threatening letters, calls, etc., aren’t documented for the public but President Barack Obama has a Wikipedia page devoted to the more significant ones: Assassination threats against Barack Obama.

Just as no one knows you are a dog on the internet, no one can tell by looking at a threat online if you are still learning how to use a pencil or are a more serious opponent.

Leaving to one side that a truly serious opponent allows actions to announce their presence or goal.

The treatment of even idle bar threats as serious is an attempt to improve the signal-to-noise ratio:

In analog and digital communications, signal-to-noise ratio, often written S/N or SNR, is a measure of signal strength relative to background noise. The ratio is usually measured in decibels (dB) using a signal-to-noise ratio formula. If the incoming signal strength in microvolts is Vs, and the noise level, also in microvolts, is Vn, then the signal-to-noise ratio, S/N, in decibels is given by the formula: S/N = 20 log10(Vs/Vn)

If Vs = Vn, then S/N = 0. In this situation, the signal borders on unreadable, because the noise level severely competes with it. In digital communications, this will probably cause a reduction in data speed because of frequent errors that require the source (transmitting) computer or terminal to resend some packets of data.

I’m guessing the reasoning is the more threats that go unspoken, the less chaff the Secret Service has to winnow in order to uncover viable threats.

One assumes they discard physical mail with return addresses of prisons, mental hospitals, etc., or at most request notice of the release of such people from state custody.

Beyond that, they don’t appear to be too picky about credible threats, noting that in one case an unspecified “death ray” was going to be used against President Obama.

The EuroNews description of that case must be shared:

Two American men have been arrested and charged with building a remote-controlled X-ray machine intended for killing Muslims and other perceived enemies of the U.S.

Following a 15-month investigation launched in April 2012, Glenn Scott Crawford and Eric J. Feight are accused of developing the device, which the FBI has described as “mobile, remotely operated, radiation emitting and capable of killing human targets silently and from a distance with lethal doses of radiation”.

Sure, right. I will post a copy of the 67-page complaint, which uses terminology rather loosely, to say the least, in a day or so. Suffice it to say that the defendants never acquired a source for the needed radioactivity production.

On the order of having a complete nuclear bomb but not nuclear material to make it into a nuclear bomb. You would be in more danger from the conventional explosive degrading than the bomb as a nuclear weapon.

Those charged with defending public officials want to deter the making of threats, so as to improve the signal/noise ratio.

The goal of those attacking public officials is a signal/noise ratio of exactly 0.0.

Viewing threats from an information science perspective suggests various strategies for either side. (Another dividend of studying information science.)

*They did find a good picture of Nixon for the White House page. Doesn’t look as much like a weasel as he did in real life. Gimp/Photoshop you think?

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