Why I Received Death Threats After The 2016 Election
The Tennessee marble that makes up the ground of Grand Central was bitterly cold. The acorn-shaped chandeliers in Vanderbilt Hall hung eerily still at dawn of The Day After. Businesspeople in pea coats and briefcases hurried across the Main Concourse before heading out into the cold, the sign of a perfectly normal day at the Terminal. I was sitting in a corner near the entrance to track 15 after a night of no sleep, my back against the wall, waiting for my morning train upstate. I just got off the phone with a friend; the call ended when his sniffles hadn’t. Even when the celestial ceiling decided to keep a poker face, the change in energy was palpable. Not just here, in this majestic space, but across the city. Everybody knew it wasn’t just another day, when the calendar read: “November 9, 2016.”
Ever since I grew up in Vietnam, I knew that Election Day in the U.S. is big. It’s not only an important event to Americans, but the world over. My Dad and I watched the coverage together in 2008 after I came back from a heavily election-themed English class. I was 13, too young to understand the international consequence of a country’s election, but old enough to feel the spirit of the American democracy from across the globe. Our hearts pounded whenever a state declared a winner. It was like watching football, except the champion earned more than just a trophy to exhibit. We even skipped lunch until the Associated Press called the race for Obama. It was refreshing to witness the voice of a people heard and more importantly, transformed into change.
There was a stillness so sharp it could cut through glass.
That was one of the many reasons I wanted to get involved in the information industry, i.e. the media. In November 2016, I was working towards that goal by interning at ABC News. I volunteered to help in their newsroom on Election Night, hoping to be part of history making. The night started off with excitement, as pizza was ordered in, creative schedules handed out, and no seats unoccupied in the meeting rooms. Hours of running up and down the building on West 66th Street wound down around 2am. The outside was dark but the results were as clear as day. There was a stillness so sharp it could cut through glass. It would be an understatement saying that was not the ending I hoped for. I caught my breath in the hallway, packed up some things and headed towards Grand Central, where the first train of the day would take me back to Poughkeepsie for a new day of class.
Being involved in the information industry didn’t just mean interning for a news corporation. I also maintained a public presence online, specifically using Facebook as a platform to express my thoughts about what was going on in the world. When I logged onto Facebook that day, I saw so many people at home celebrating the outcome of the election. It startled me how the online sphere was unbelievably festive while my surroundings were gloomy as hell. Everyone on the train was quiet. The spirit was so low on campus that all classes ended up getting canceled. The unimaginable had happened, an outcome nobody in my bubble expected. That use of the word “bubble” was intentional, because what happened that day showed me everything you thought you knew might not at all be the full picture, and outside of this town, this state, people prioritize different things. Seeing my friends cry and worry about their families was heart-wrenching. Reading the news felt chaotic. For obvious reasons, I worried about my future, too, and as someone who is not an American, I felt more helpless than ever. The celebratory Facebook posts clearly didn’t help.
I was an international student, so technically, I didn’t have the obligation to identify one way or another with American politics. As an outsider, my goal should be to learn and open my ears to all sides, even if I feel strongly for a certain position. However, even when I tried to be neutral, the tone-deaf celebration on that day frustrated me. Even if I win at a competition, I wouldn’t flaunt laughter and fireworks at the face of the defeated. Throwing a party while other people suffer pain just didn’t sit well with my principles, regardless of how legitimate the victory was. It was a matter of tact, which prompted me to pen an essay on Facebook. I was hoping sharing with people the reality of what was happening — real anxieties my friends experienced, real worries their families had, real fear about the future — could help change some people’s mind.
What followed was a nightmare I never wanted to relive.
Comments started rolling in about how I should come back to my “communist country” if I wasn’t happy about the election results. Comments about how great the new President was, how I didn’t have the right as a foreigner to voice my opinion, how stories about my friends were fabricated and how the piece was a mere tactic of scaremongering filled up the post. Before this moment, I already had a few pieces of writing that traveled far and helped me amass a decent amount of following, so the scale of such interaction was expected and I became thick-skinned enough to stay calm when the negativity flowed in. Or at least I thought so, before the situation got out of control.
“You’re a born-and-bred communist who stole money from the poor people of your nation and ran to America. How dare you try to “revolutionize” the greatest country in the world with your filthy political agenda?” — read one comment.
“I don’t believe one bit that you’re a student. You are a spy the communist government hired to infiltrate the civilized world and destroy it. How much did they pay you?” — read another.
“Racial discrimination is a hoax. Shut your stupid mouth and crawl back into your mother’s vagina.” — read a different response.
I admit, some of these conspiracy theories made me laugh because I wish I was powerful enough to challenge a 200-year-old nation, but at the end of the day, the content was just vile. What disturbed me even more was these comments came from Vietnamese people, both in the U.S. and at home. No matter the history, they and I came from the same root, so the cruelty cut through like a bitter betrayal. The comment section wasn’t even the end of it. Anonymous Facebook users started reporting my photos for nudity, although they all were everyday photos with friends, with clothes on. I started getting notifications that they reported the post itself and even my account for inappropriate content. Through some digging, I learned that my post was shared to a Facebook group called “Conservative and Classic Liberal Vietnamese,” whose 4000 members schemed a coordinated attack to take my account down. “Let’s teach this little shit a lesson,” said one of the members. Having held somewhat of a public presence in Vietnam and weathered these storms before, I was no stranger to these tricks, but it was incredibly painful living through it to defend a piece of writing spotlighting kindness and civility. I could taste the irony on the tip of my tongue.
My endurance reached a breaking point when I got a message. It was simple, with fewer words than the rest, coming from an anonymous person who definitely voted red as indicated by their profile picture. I had read a lot of mean things in my life until that point, but this one took the cake. “Mean” was not even the right word to describe it. I froze for a good minute after reading the comment.
“If I see you on the street, I will shoot you.”
Vividly accompanying the text was a picture of a gun. A shiver ran down my spine, as the evening loomed over the suburban campus. Millions of thoughts rushed through my brain like bullets (ah, didn’t intend this one). Information about where I went to school was public on my very public profile, so it took little effort for someone like that to trace me down. Even if not, I would have to take the Metro North back to New York for my ABC internship in a few days. Would it be safe if I did so? Where could this person live? New York? California? Texas? How serious were they? Where on my body would they aim? What would the pain feel like when a bullet blew off my head? I surely had watched a lot of action movies, but had yet to experience the real life version of them. They would totally catch me off guard. I was just hoping it didn’t happen when I walked out of a grocery store, because that was my favorite place on earth.
Debates become battles, opinions become personal properties and in a land like America, trespassing properties could result in death.
The existential thoughts ramped up my anxiety. It was hard to believe someone would go that far for a difference in opinion. My original post wasn’t even to propagandize for a certain party or political view — kindness and tact were basic human values as I was taught. Getting shot for promoting respect was an insane idea, but I guess when politics is rooted so deeply within you, then everything becomes a fight. Debates become battles, opinions become personal properties and in a land like America, trespassing properties could result in death. It is a vicious principle when words can turn lethal at any point.
I stopped reading the comments after that one and tried to fall asleep. Needless to say, the hours weren’t enough. I woke up before dawn and crafted an email to a professor that I admired. She was from Southeast Asia as well and had been researching history, wars and politics. She made a rare exception to let me come in first thing and talk to her about the Internet quarrel, and later advised me to take a break. On that same day, a friend connected me with a regional manager of Facebook. I sent her a personal email summarizing the situation and consulted her for insights. “There isn’t a lot I can do, so you’d better let it pass.” At that point, the post had garnered more than 35,000 reactions, 9,000 shares and 9,000 comments. It was overwhelming to say the least, but no numbers could sweep away the invisible pistol hanging over my head. As someone who didn’t have a say in the US election, how strange could it be that my life was turned upside down by its results?
Realizing the situation was out of my control, I tried to stay composed by spending time at the library, throwing myself into books and shifting my attention to my study. I believed it was the best way to stay safe, and hoped that whoever sent me the death threat couldn’t find me between stacks and stacks of books in the basement of an upstate library. I turned to my friends for support, and told myself every night before bed that what I did was right and fighting for kindness was nothing to be ashamed of. To show the world I stood by my opinion, I didn’t take the post down. It continued to travel to unknown lands, but same as any other controversy, it had to pass at one point. A week later, notifications stopped chiming. Reports of my account were cleared by Facebook. The comment section became more dormant. Life somewhat came back to normal, or at least I tried to make it so.
Four years have passed since that day. I’m sitting in my SoHo apartment on Election Eve of 2020 — what an insane year by the way, sipping on tea to calm the inevitable anxiety. I still have flashbacks to the coldness of the marble floor in Grand Central and the naivety of my 21-year-old self, unaware of the storm in the horizon. Reflecting on this experience was a rocky walk down memory lane, a mixture of hope that things will be different this time, and fear that the division is still clear-cut. I want to share this story because after tomorrow, no matter what the outcome is, there will be conflict. It has be an incredibly difficult year. New York City is already boarded up and the tension in brewing in the air. When the result is called, maybe a day or a week from now, half of America will be bathing in joy, while the other half mourn the loss of their chosen candidate. As a nation of diverse ideas, there is bound to be dispute. What I hope is in the aftermath of it all, people can treat one another with kindness and respect, even if perspectives differ. Having received a death threat just from voicing my opinion and still sometimes waking up in the middle of the night to the thought of it, I wish that on no one. Politics aside, we are all humans cohabitating on the same planet. Life is too short to be hateful. It’s not the Divided States of America, but United States after all.