Every year in the United States a number of employees are fired for threatening other employees with violence. Even when the threat is considered “harmless” by everyone involved—fellow workers, witnesses, the employee being threatened—management treats it seriously.
Given the realities of today’s world, no one in authority risks downplaying a workplace threat. When it comes to “zero tolerance” thresholds, this is the gold standard. In virtually every instance, the employee gets fired.
Two generations ago, an angry person might threaten to punch you in the nose. Today, they say they’re going to “blow your bleeping head off.” Call it progress. Labor union reps—especially those in industrial settings—not only hear all sorts of weird and dramatic stuff, they receive their share of disturbing phone calls, including death threats.
While I’ve been threatened with lawsuits and challenged to the occasional fistfight, I’ve never had anyone ring me up and say they were going to kill me. However, I’ve known union officers who have had their lives threatened, and they all say it was an unpleasant experience.
A couple of weeks ago it was widely reported that AIG executives had been receiving anonymous death threats, presumably as a result of stories about their huge salaries and outrageous bonuses. These AIG executives dutifully reported the threats to the police and, in something of a surprise, also shared them with the media.
Arguably, unless you’ve experienced it firsthand—unless you’ve had someone threaten to kill you or your family—you can’t know how it feels. Even if you’re able, intellectually, to categorize the threats as “crank calls,” on some level they’re going to continue to gnaw at you.
That said, and as cynical as this will sound, we have to wonder if these AIG folks didn’t report these “death threats” as a means of seeking public sympathy—as a device to deflect criticism by sending the media off in a different direction.
After all, they had very few options. They couldn’t defend AIG’s conduct; they couldn’t laugh off the financial crisis; they couldn’t insist that, despite losses of billions of dollars, they were still entitled to hefty bonuses—at taxpayer expense. In truth, all that was left was to say, “Help! People want to kill me!”
Some years ago I was part of a union negotiating team that, after months of bargaining, called a strike. We shut the plant down at noon on a Monday, put 700 workers on the bricks, and stayed out for 57 difficult days, right in the middle of a hot, Southern California summer. It was tough. Any strike that lasts longer than five or six weeks is going to get hairy, and ours was no exception.
On about the 40th day (health insurance expired after a month), I began receiving telephone calls. While no one explicitly threatened to harm me or my family, they did say, “We know where you live. Don’t make us come there and do something we don’t want to do.” The words were uttered ominously. Moreover, many people did know where I lived.
But given the circumstances, I interpreted the calls not as threats, but as the product of frustration and desperation. Because no one (including the negotiators) had a clue as to when the strike would be over—and because tempers were short and nerves frayed, and people were being asked to walk picket in 100-degree heat—a disgruntled union member making a dumb phone call not only wasn’t out of the question, it almost made sense.
Also, hasn’t experience taught us that people who go to the trouble of making threats aren’t the ones who follow through on them? Typically, rattling someone’s cage by making a death threat is the full extent of their commitment. It’s the guy who never talks about it, the guy you’ve never heard from before, who presents the real danger.
That’s why when you read about people “snapping”—murdering half a dozen people, then killing themselves—you don’t hear witnesses say that they’d always suspected the guy would do something like this, or that the he’d always threatened to do it. Rather, you hear the opposite; people say what a nice guy he was, a quiet guy who kept to himself, and how this violent act was incomprehensible.
In real life, deranged people murder their bosses and co-workers; they murder their ex-lovers, their estranged wives, and their estranged wives’ boyfriends. They kill total strangers. They even assassinate presidents. What they don’t do is hunt down overpaid accountant executives who are responsible for raising our taxes and increasing the national debt.
Again, I’m not trivializing death threats. But I am suggesting that this whole AIG “death threat” story reeked from the very beginning. Bernie Madoff is still breathing air. That alone should tell us these AIG guys aren’t going to be touched.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright (“Americana,” “Larva Boy”) and writer, was a former labor union rep. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org