Social media is nearly insufferable, amid the endless insults and venom spewed by keyboard warriors.
But the trolls can get worse, eagerly devolving into self-styled tactical snipers, quick and foolish to inject their ignorance and intolerance into even the most delicate public-safety scenarios.
This was evident Tuesday, during a police standoff in McNabb, a village of fewer than 300 residents about 35 miles northeast of Peoria. A 31-year-old McNabb man had smashed his way into a downtown business while brandishing a machete, then fled into his apartment. Police from multiple agencies swarmed the place, then blocked off access to the village as they tried to defuse the situation.
The standoff ended peacefully when the man gave himself up about seven hours later. But during that time, as police tried to communicate with him, so did outsiders via Facebook. And in many cases, their comments were scary and precarious.
“It was unfortunate,” Putnam County Sheriff Kevin Doyle said Wednesday morning. “People chiming in sometimes makes our job tougher.
"It didn’t help us."
Before Tuesday, the machete man often had posted on Facebook. Many of his posts involved an unclear rant involving local police and his car. To me, the overall impression didn't seem to indicate any looming threat but — as with a great many screeds throughout Facebook — a vague dissatisfaction with life.
Other posts weaved annoyances with Bible verses. “When in doubt,” he posted recently, “turn to your greatest weapon: the Bible.”
Instead, on Tuesday, he turned to a machete. And once holed up in his apartment and surrounded by cops, he turned to Facebook.
“At a standoff,” he posted about 2:30 p.m. “I assure you people of this area. My blood is on your hands. And God will avenge me.”
He made other posts, none with that touch of drama. But hundreds of comments followed. Many urged patience and peace:
• “Let them help you.”
• “Stay safe.”
• “You don't know me. I am a mom from Granville. Don't do it! Lost my son last year, your age. Hard on the momma. Praying for you!”
But some comments were rash and rude — and possibly incendiary:
• “Save the taxpayers money and take him out.”
• “A bullet between the eyes.”
• “We put down rabid dogs, don’t we?”
• “They need to just take him out and end it.”
• “Your God wants you in hell, coward.”
I don’t know if these commenters were anxious to get home, or trying to be funny, or just plain stupid. But making taunts like “dog” or “coward” is an inexplicable and indefensible way to inject oneself into a precarious police situation.
Amid these inflammatory comments, others tried to inject reason into the thread. As usual on Facebook, that effort blew apart in their faces. Witness this interchange (edited slightly for language and length):
Man: “Kick in his door and see how the (heck) he likes it.”
Woman: "Be nice. Don’t be a d-bag."
Man: “I GET TO SAY WANT I WANT. I LIVE IN AMERICA. I HAVE MY RIGHT.”
Constitutionally speaking, yes, he has a right — the right to shoot off his mouth online and risk escalating a tricky situation. And that comment got 14 “likes,” one of the biggest responses in the thread.
Mind you, though the machete man needs help, I’m not suggesting he isn’t at fault in the break-in and standoff. But his actions didn't justify open season for Facebook fools looking to take pot shots. My guess is, such commenters couldn’t care less about his welfare. But at the very least, don’t they worry about igniting the situation and prompting a police officer to fire his weapon? Do these Facebook commenters want cops to have deal with that?
Meanwhile, police monitored Facebook. Facebook policy does allow deactivation of an account, if police feel there is a “risk of death or serious physical injury to any person.” But Sheriff Doyle, though concerned about the nasty comments during the McNabb standoff, says police never reached the point of cutting off Facebook access.
“Every (situation) is unique,” Doyle said. “Sometimes, we have to shut off the communication. Sometimes, though, it’s the only way people will talk, especially the younger generation.”
But, he stressed, there’s never a time when standoffs are helped by Facebook comments — nice, nasty or otherwise. There’s always a risk that any comment can trigger an impulsive and violent response — not just online, but with people’s safety and lives.
It's not a game of virtual reality. It's real reality.
As the sheriff says, “In trying to keep someone non-agitated, from a law-enforcement perspective, it does not help us.”
PHIL LUCIANO is a Journal Star columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, facebook.com/philluciano and (309) 686-3155. Follow him on Twitter.com/LucianoPhil.