In CS Lewis’ classic book “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” the four Pevensie siblings explore an old country house in England and find a door to a magical world. In Narnia, they become heroes and befriended talking animals. Maybe when Tyler Barriss was a boy and discovered the Internet and online games, he was like Pevensie’s children – yearning for escape, freedom and adventure.
In December 2017, Barriss carried out a “crush” hoax because he was upset by a dispute with other players of an online video game. He called the emergency services of a public library where he lived in Los Angeles and told a totally false story that he was a murderer who was holding hostages at a house in Wichita, Kansas, and that he was risking to burn down the house. Swatting takes its name from the heavily armed SWAT teams that are often sent into crisis situations.
Barriss’s lies sent police to a scene where they expected to face a desperate, unstable gun killer. But Andrew Finch, the young man who came to the door of the Wichita house, was none of that. She was an innocent and unsuspecting victim whose emergence on the porch surprised first responders. He was shot dead by a policeman.
In sentencing, Barriss’ attorney argued that he “never intended for anyone to get hurt”, adding that what had happened was “an outgrowth of culture at within the gaming community ”. His lawyer described Barriss: “He had no orientation, no education and no job – video games became his identity and gained notoriety as a ‘fag’ filled a great void.”
Now, at 26, the young man who was a serial fag has 20 years in federal prison ahead of him. His 2018 jail tweet proclaiming “I’m an eGod” is a sad comment.
In some ways, Barriss’s story is unique. To my knowledge, no one else has ever engaged in a swatting that produced a fatal result. But it was only a matter of time: Swatting is dirty roulette. This is not a game or a joke.
In other ways, Barriss’s story is all too commonplace. He is far from the only young person to enter the online world and find problems because they seem to fail to recognize the real world harms that can come from participating in a virtual world. Barriss has become a notorious criminal among the gaming community.
But other young people are becoming real victims in the online world.
Online communities are teeming with fake news, fake characters and dirty tricks. We have frequently seen cases in which an adult man masquerades as a teenager and uses Facebook or other media to contact girls and young women for whom he is a complete stranger. What can start out as an internet chat can turn into blackmail, child pornography, kidnapping, or even in-person sex offenses.
This online manipulation and exploitation exemplifies many cases that we have investigated and prosecuted under the Department of Justice’s Project Safe Childhood program. In many cases, children and teens connect online with real-world predators in disguise looking for online victims to exploit.
The regularity with which we see these cases is what deeply troubles me as a prosecutor and a parent. As prosecutors we are sometimes able to catch, punish and neutralize swatters and online predators, but we cannot right the harm done to victims.
After the Barriss affair, I hope the gaming community condemns and discourages swatting. But we all need to redouble our efforts to educate our young people about the dangers of interacting with strangers online. In doing so, we can save many children from trauma that no federal lawsuit will erase or heal.
Stephen McAllister is the United States Attorney for the District of Kansas.
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